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No-til l agriculture is a farming method in which crops are cultivated without plowing, thus minimizing disturbance to the soil. Instead, the farmer plants seeds in a slot created by equipment that uses disks or chisels to create a narrow furrow in which the seed can be injected and then covered. This method of farming yields a number of environmental benefits relative to conventional farming. It preserves soil and, in most cases, generates higher crop yields than conventional farming.
Conventional tilling loosens and disturbs the soil, which allows for greater erosion. Plowing breaks up clods that naturally form from organic matter, such as roots and plant remnants, left in the soil. As this organic matter is churned up, it is exposed to the atmosphere where it quickly decomposes, releasing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that are easily carried away by wind and rain. The no-till method not only prevents soil erosion but also helps with the retention of nutrients, thus reducing the need for additional fertilizer. Fertilizer use can be further reduced by equipment that injects fertilizer in with the seeds as they are planted, thereby eliminating the need to fertilize the entire field. Naturally forming clods in the soil also help to retain water, which reduces the need for irrigation.
No-till methods also offer promise for reducing global warming, an increase in the temperature in the earth’s atmosphere caused in part by the release of carbon dioxide into the air. Elevated carbon dioxide levels are caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, but conventional agricultural practices also contribute to this problem in other ways. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the air, but the carbon accumulates in plants and decomposition of the plant returns some of it to the atmosphere. The remainder is sequestered in the soil as organic matter. This is significant as soils contain roughly twice as much carbon as land plants or the atmosphere. The amount of carbon sequestered in the soil is greatly reduced when forests and grasslands are converted for agricultural purposes. Carbon in the soil is easily transferred into the air. Conventional plowing disturbs the soil and allows organic matter to decompose more quickly as it is regularly exposed to the atmosphere into which the carbon dioxide is then released. The no-till method allows the undisturbed soil to retain much of that carbon. No-till methods also greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels by limiting the need for fertilizers and reducing the number of times farmers must go over their fields. Fewer trips across the fields also decreases soil compaction caused by tractors.
Although extensive testing of no-till practices is ongoing, the environmental and economic benefits of no-till agriculture appear to be significant. Higher yields, and savings in terms of labor time, fuel, fertilizers, and irrigation mean fewer costs and higher returns for farmers using this method. Ecologically, no-till methods prevent soil erosion, pollution runoff, the use of synthetic fertilizers, and carbon dioxide releases.
On the other hand, no-till methods still require herbicide usage for weed control and there is some evidence that demand for herbicides may actually increase under a no-till regime. The use of no-till methods in the United States is increasing significantly. By one estimate, in 1990 seven million acres were farmed using the no-till method; by 2002 that number had increased to over 50 million.
- Megan Gregory, Kathleen L. Shea, and Eugene B. Bakko, “Comparing Agroecosystems: Effects of Cropping and Tillage Patterns on Soil, Water, Energy Use and Productivity,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (v.20/2, 2005);
- Rattan Lal et , “Ecology: Managing Soil Carbon,” Science (v.304/5669, 2004).