No-till key in climate change

08 Dec, 2015 01:00 AM
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This represents one of the greatest global threats for agriculture

WITH one-third of arable land lost in the past 40 years, no-till agriculture is key to a farming future according to UK researchers speaking at the Paris climate conference.

The experts warned that soil loss is an unfolding global disaster and will have a major impact on meeting world food production needs.

University of Sheffield Professor of Plant and Soil Biology, Duncan Cameron, said soil loss occurs rapidly but takes hundreds of years to be replaced.

“This represents one of the greatest global threats for agriculture,” he told the conference.

“Erosion rates from ploughed fields are on average 10 to 100 times greater than rates of soil formation.

"This is catastrophic when you think that it takes about 500 years to form 2.5cm of topsoil under normal agricultural conditions.”

The University’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures report said the current intensive agriculture model is unsustainable as intensive farming sees crop yields maintained through heavy fertiliser applications.

This means high energy inputs are needed to supply inorganic nitrogen via industrial processes that consume five per cent of the world’s natural gas production and two per cent of the world’s annual energy supply.

It also depends on the mining of non-renewable and increasingly diminishing stocks of rock phosphorus, and sees nutrients wash-out of soils polluting fresh and coastal waters.

The team said “elite modern crops are optimised for a system of high nutrient artificial inputs and chemical control of pests and diseases; they have consequently lost their natural reliance on microbes to extract complex nutrients from the soil and for defence against natural enemies.

“Soil is becoming a hydroponic system: a physical substrate to support plants, but providing little else.”

The report outlined three key principles to drive a sustainable agriculture model including managing soil by direct manure application, rotating annual and cover crops, and practicing no-till agriculture.

These “conservation agriculture” practices restore soil organic matter, structure, water-holding capacity and nutrients, averting soil loss and benefiting crops.

Secondly, it is recommended biotechnology is used to “wean crops off the artificial world we have created for them, enabling plants to initiate and sustain symbioses with soil microbes”.

This would allow crops to exploit microbial biology to tap into soil organic nutrient reserves, and prime plants to better defend themselves against pests and diseases.

Finally, the Sheffield team said recycling nutrients from human sewage in “a circular economy” could see inorganic fertiliser manufactured in biorefineries operating at either an industrial or local scale.

While technical challenges currently restrict this idea, research would be key to furthering this opportunity.

The report said a soil focussed reengineering of agricultural system would reduce the need for fertiliser inputs and pesticide application, require less irrigation, and contribute to safeguarding the finite natural resource.

For further information see grantham.sheffield.ac.uk

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FarmOnline
Tom McKenny

Tom McKenny

is the national machinery writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Mark2
8/12/2015 10:32:22 AM

Good luck with no til without high inputs. All of the comments in this article have merit and most farming operations are well and truly aware of soil erosion, I wonder however if the delegates at the climate talks are as aware of the cost price squeeze that modern farming is under all the time, no mention of any of this at the climate talks I'm sure
Mark
9/12/2015 6:52:42 AM

Don't worry about the erosion issue in Australia as most of us who work the Land are addressing that issue, Worry about how many farmers stop or reduce the amount of grain they grow due to the increasing cost and the dwindling returns from the market manipulated by Traders. With Stock returns becoming more attractive many of us are turning from growing crops to Stock. Most of us are sick of working for the Banks and Machinery companies and fighting mother nature. We can still put food on our table what about everyone else. Until we get a decent return on our investment change is inevitable.
NicM
10/12/2015 7:40:30 AM

Both good points Marks. Using soil as substrate is a poor long term outcome of industrialised agriculture. Until farmers are paid for the true life cycle value of the food they produce the unpriced externalities will continue to be soaked up somewhere outside of the market- in land degredation, unreasonable working conditions and risk for farmers etc. Not a coincidence that farming is one of the most dangerous professions physically and suicide rates are so high in rural areas.

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