Spare the Plow, Save the Soil. (Agriculture)

By Karasov, Corliss | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Spare the Plow, Save the Soil. (Agriculture)


Karasov, Corliss, Environmental Health Perspectives


After 8,000 years of use, the plow is getting the shaft as farmers around the world demonstrate that less can be more. By plowing less using no-till farming methods, farmers are getting higher crop yields and using fewer inputs such as water, pesticides, and tractor fuel. In addition, soil erosion and equipment and labor costs are reduced. "For decades, agronomists, have known that conventional plowing isn't entirely beneficial," says Dan Towery, a natural resources specialist with the Conservation Technology Information Center in West Lafayette, Indiana, "but farmers were reluctant to change [for fear] of reduced yields."

In no-till farming, soil is not disturbed between harvesting one crop and planting the next; seeds are planted in stubble or sod instead of plowed soil. The goal of no-till is to leave as much of the soil surface and ground cover undisturbed as possible to provide protection against erosion, reduce soil crusting, and increase the soil's organic content. "The number one way to keep soil from eroding," says Towery, "is to keep it covered, and no-till leaves the most residue."

In a presentation at the First International World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, held in October 2001, agronomist Roll Derpsch said the United States has the largest area of no-till in one country, with 21.1 million hectares (18% of total cropland). The Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay region comes in second with 27 million hectares (as many as 90% of Paraguay's mechanized farms use no-till methods). Asia recently moved into third place: since 1998 the adoption of no-till more than tripled to over 100,000 hectares in 2001. Scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center speculate that no-till in Asia may exceed 300,000 hectares within the next year. The absolute numbers of acres involved may not be high, but the rate of adoption is remarkable, says Wayne Reeves, a lead scientist and research agronomist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Alabama.

Reeves is especially concerned with the effects of plowing on releasing carbon dioxide. "Each [plow pass] oxidizes organic matter and results in the release of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming," says Reeves. "By not tilling, the carbon is instead used to increase organic matter levels [in the soil]. …

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