The No-Till Revolution

Experts agree that we will have to double agricultural production to feed a world population that is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 and possibly pass the 10 billion mark by the end of the century. Yet more and more cultivated land is being lost to urban and sprawl, and in much of the world erosion is imperiling the fertile topsoil from which the plants that sustain life grow.

Meanwhile, water stress is becoming increasingly severe throughout much of the planet. Already 80 nations suffer from water shortages, and the United Nations Environment Program estimates that two out of three people will live in drought or water-stressed conditions by 2025.

The world’s acute resource challenges will require concerted actions on many fronts, but a key part of the solution is already being provided by the revolution in modern, herbicide-enabled no-till agriculture.

Beyond the plow
Most plowing is done to control weeds that can otherwise choke crops and decimate yields. The problem is that the continual churning of the earth destroys nutrients and biodiversity in the soil, releases tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, depletes moisture, and causes precious topsoil to be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. It’s estimated that it can take from 700 to 1500 years to naturally replenish an inch of topsoil.

The earth that is being washed away also clogs our rivers, lakes and streams, damaging fragile ecosystems. In fact, the U.S. EPA ranks sediment runoff as the number one pollutant in U.S. waterways.

Modern crop protection technologies, however, can often make the plow as outmoded as the horse and buggy.

The no-till solution
In no-till farming, the plow can be left in the shed, while farmers use safe, targeted herbicides to control weeds. This enables them to allow chaff, stalks and stems to decay on the ground, encouraging the regrowth of subsurface ecosystems. Earthworms provide the aeration and channels that help roots grow, while water and greenhouse gasses are retained in the soil, and erosion is drastically reduced. Each year, new crops are planted in a new layer of mulch left over from the year before.

The positive effects of the no-till revolution are dramatic.

Growing more on less land

The growth of no-till agriculture in the United States is one reason why U.S. corn farmers were able to boost yields by 41 percent from 1987 to 2007.  The efficiency of no-till and other agricultural technologies are the only way to grow more food on less land, reducing pressure on forests and habitat.

Less water waste and less water pollution
In corn farming, no-till has also helped farmers reduce irrigation water use by 27 percent.  By leaving earth intact, no-till and other forms of conservation agriculture have reduced water pollution in the United States from soil runoff by 43 percent in recent decades.

Less erosion
No-till is a key reason why the erosion rate on U.S. cropland was reduced by 24 percent between 1982 and 1997.  One study found that no-till methods can decrease soil erosion by a whopping 98 percent.

Less greenhouse gas

No-till is a one-two punch against greenhouse gas emissions.  It greatly reduces fossil fuel use by reducing the number of passes a farmer has to make on a tractor.  And it sequesters enormous amounts of CO2 in the soil.

The UN Environmental Program has found that global adoption of no-till could reduce carbon emissions 2-3 billion tons a year.  That’s one-third the annual carbon emissions from all fossil fuel burning cars, trucks, buses, factories and power plants in the United States in a year.

A technology the world needs

Eighty-five percent of no-till land is in North and South America, leaving out poor farmers in Africa and Asia who might benefit the most from it.

Where no-till has been used in Africa, it has brought miraculous results. When it was introduced in Ghana, farmers who practiced this form of conservation agriculture reaped a 45 percent increase in maize yields. The labor savings for families was 27 percent.

The no-till miracle in the Brazilian Cerrado

Much of the arid cerrado in Brazil’s northeastern has been restored and given over to no-till agriculture. 

In 1990, Brazil’s farmers used no-till farming for 2.6 percent of its grain production.  Today, no-till is used to grow more than half of that country’s grain, helping transform Brazil from being one of the biggest grain importers to a powerhouse exporter as a global breadbasket.

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