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Can No-till Agriculture Feed the World?

Emergence of crop in a no-till farming practice. Soil is protected and organic matter preserved.

Emergence of crop in a no-till farming practice. Soil is protected and organic matter preserved.

http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=11062#.VEknoArpNNA.email

The above press release came out on a study done by the UC Davis in California that was published last month. Several headlines, circulated widely online and on social media, stated that no-till agriculture isn’t going to be able to yield enough food to feed an ever-growing population. When the press release came out on the study I was obviously annoyed just from reading the press’s titles: “No-till agriculture may not bring hoped-for boost in global crop yields, study finds” (UC Davis, News). UC Davis describes themselves as “a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges.” (UC Davis, News and Information, Nov. 10) I’m not so sure I agree with this statement. Another example was, “No-till farming only beneficial in dry regions” (ETH Zurich, https://www.ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2014/10/no-till-farming-only-beneficial-in-dry-regions.html).

While I recognize the value of scientific research in improving agricultural strategies and practices, these are good science-based news agencies and I’m confused as to why they would intentionally seek to damn no-till in the public eye. I guess sensationalizing news is needed no matter where it comes from. If the intent of these titles was to grab reader’s eyes and incense the no-till community, they were effective. I was sucked in! I read these articles and was even more annoyed by them. You may have read my 5 or 6 tweets a couple weeks ago about the articles.

This kind of study, called a “meta-analysis”, compared data of 5,463 paired crop yield observations from 610 studies and 63 countries, from 1980 to 2013. It is the largest meta-analysis of agricultural data conducted to date. The approach was “to synthesize current scientific evidence at a global scale to assess crop yields under no-till in relation to implementation of the other two conservation agriculture principles, residue retention and crop rotation.” (UC Davis, News).

After reading the study itself, (as Dr. Dwayne Beck says “The devil is in the details”) I found some interesting stuff. Some was obvious, some annoying pitfalls, and some good comments.

Obvious things they quantified:

-For best no-till results you must include residue retention and a good crop rotation. Using this practice increased yields in dry region an average of 7.3%! (Where was that headline? Positive news doesn’t sell!) That finding is obvious to anyone who has been involved in no-till for any length of time.

Good comments:

-The challenge for no-till farmers in poorer dry land regions in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is the short term temptation to sell or use the residue for animal feed or fuel. And crop rotations often include a less profitable crop so the temptation to grow the cash crop every year is intense. If residue retention and crop rotation are not practiced in no-till dry land there is potentially a 11%+ yield loss over tilled. This number seems high to me, we have customers in the Peace River region that have been continuously growing canola for years and quite happy with the result. Not something I would recommend but for the farmers near 60 degrees N it is working.

I can see this issue as a major concern for those regions of the world. This means before developed countries go in to “help” improve farming practices in any part of the world an extremely well thought out plan that includes crop rotation, residue management, cover crops etc. needs to be prepared or just switching to no-till might have a negative effect. The approach has to be multi-faceted, dare I say holistic, and the grower has to expect a longer-term investment in order to exact desired results. These necessary steps might not be possible in an impoverished area, without the proper support in place.

Annoying flaws, misperceptions, misinterpretations:

-The study doesn’t put any long term value on soil health or the positive impact of no-till on the environment.

-The study doesn’t really look at cost savings of no-till.

-The study looks at yield only with total disregard for soil health and the environmental impact of existing tillage system.

-The study goes back to 1980! We all know how much technology has changed since 1980 with regards to cropping options, plant breading, pest control and of course seeding and planting equipment. All of these tools have seriously advanced the success of this practice and have helped make no-till more viable in recent years.

-The study points out that in humid regions of the world intense tillage will yield 6-9% higher than no-till. (Just what the tillage culture of the corn belt of North America and Europe needs to hear!) It is these high rainfall regions where the most concern is about nutrient leaching. Leaching is affecting groundwater in Europe and nutrient runoff is causing a dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico in North America. Why weren’t these facts taken into consideration? Western Europe and the U.S. have been the slowest to adapt to no-till I believe part of the reason for this is that the significant subsidies given to farmers in these regions results in a relatively stable income so “why change” is a pervasive attitude. As a result of this general attitude there has been less effort put into no-till research at all levels: farm, plant breeding, pesticide innovation, equipment etc. This is what the UC Davis finding is actually pointing out.

Changing farming practices is a huge endeavour in any climate. In regions of the world where it has been successful; Australia, South America, Canada, etc. there was more emphasis on no-till to reduce the cost of production so farmers could survive low grain prices. Many experts also knew it would also result in long term improvement of the soil, but it was survival that mattered most (necessity breeds invention). These regions are now among the lowest cost producers of grains and oilseeds. Farmers have learned how to grow several different crops and are now very quick to adapt to change. A very good position to be in, innovative and low cost! The benefits that no-till brought to these regions of the world are more than yield increases, they are more efficient, they are more diverse, more innovative and prepared for change and their soils are improving each year. It is hard to believe a learned institute like UC Davis wouldn’t put more thought into how they used their findings when they took their results to the press!

This is how I would have like to have seen this reported:

-Combining 24 years of global research that compares intensive no-till and intensive tillage agriculture has shown that dry-land no-till when practiced with residue retention and good crop rotations has resulted in 7% yield increases.

-In moister regions of the world the results were 6-9% yield loss, however this does not take into account the reduced cost of no-till farming.

-We expect the moister regions of the world to catch up to dryer regions. The recent addition of cover crops to the no-till system especially in moister regions along with better equipment, plant breeding, and pest control options modern farmers are finding better yields and much better profits in no-till operations even in moister regions of the world.

One of the comments in the press release stated that “in moister regions residue retention without tillage was too difficult and that crop rotation options were not readily available”. I believe the change to no-till was difficult for any climate. The moister, subsidized regions simply haven’t experienced the need to change yet.

A couple of my tweets on this: “Creating a No-Till system takes innovation, determination and knowhow in any climate. If you don’t have those keep plowing” “Report says no-till not warranted where crop rotation and residue retention is too hard to implement – Most things worth doing are hard!”

We know that long term crop production will require good soil health so it is important that researchers and farmers endeavour to find the right crop rotations and tools to make no-till work in all climates. I am unsure as to what the end goal of this study was: did UC Davis intend to sour the public on the practice of no-till farming? Or was the goal to encourage multiple approaches to conservation agriculture for success? What do the authors of this study consider to be success? Is yield the only measure, or does preserving the land for future use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change play a part here?

Please reach out to me with your comments. I can be reached @PatrickBeaujot on Twitter or @NOTILLville

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