Why Adopt No-Till Conservation Agriculture?

Amir Kassam, University of Reading, UK

Conventional tillage farming has begun to falter in recent decades world-wide. This is reflected by sub-optimal yields of staple crops in most industrialized nations and in the Green Revolution heartlands in Asia, despite further increases in production inputs. In addition, tillage agriculture has been responsible for causing severe degradation of land resources globally. It has been reported that since WWII, some 400 M ha of agricultural land has been destroyed due to tillage farming. While the extent of land and environmental degradation varies, depending on climate and level of agricultural development, it is becoming increasingly recognized that tillage is the root cause of unsustainable farming globally and, along with intensive use of agrochemicals, energy and capital, tillage farming has become unfit for the future in achieving sustainable production, intensification and ecosystem services. Furthermore, as top-soil pulverization has increased with tillage in conventional production systems in recent decades, there has been greater exposure of bare soils and crops to greater climatic variability and stresses, together with a decrease in cropping diversity.
Tillage-based production systems everywhere have contributed to a decrease in input factor productivity, and, through excessive use of seeds, agrochemicals, water and energy, an increase in cost of production. They have also led to dysfunctional and degraded ecosystems and loss of soil and landscape biodiversity. These negative impacts on food, agricultural and environmental costs are being passed on to the public and to future generations. These are serious indicators of unsustainable and vulnerable farming practices at a structural level.

In response, agriculture has been transforming to a new paradigm that can: (i) mobilize greater crop and land potentials sustainably to meet future food, agriculture and environmental demands; (ii) maintain highest levels of productivity, efficiency and resilience (‘more from less’); and (iii) rehabilitate or regenerate degraded and abandoned agricultural land and ecosystem services.

This alternative paradigm is No-Till Conservation Agriculture (CA), comprising of three linked principles: (i) no or minimum mechanical soil disturbance (no-till seeding); (ii) maintenance of soil mulch cover with crop residues, stubbles and cover crops; and (iii) diversified cropping involving annuals and perennials, including legumes. These principles when put into practice along with other best practices, have shown on all continents to be able to address the weaknesses of conventional tillage agriculture. This is because this new paradigm of No-Till CA is an agro-ecological approach to managing the natural capital base, and the  potential of both land and crops. It pays special attention, for greater productivity and resilience: (i) to soil as a living biological and multi-functional system whose health and functions must be understood and managed correctly; (ii) to biodiversity in the soil and above the ground; and (iii) to landscape ecosystems  and services at the farm, landscape, community levels.

No-Till CA is now spreading globally at the annual rate of 10 M ha and in 2013 it covered some 160 M ha of annual cropland, corresponding to about 11% of global annual cropland. Uptake of CA in Europe is increasing in recent years, particularily in UK, France, Spain, Italy and Finland.

The Groundswell No-Till Show and Conference represents a significant milestone of achievement for UK farming because it is an illustration that farmers are willing to take greater control of their future by experimenting with radically new and innovative No-Till and related practices in building sustainable and regenerative farming systems for the future. Mass transformation of tillage agriculture to No-Till CA anywhere requires the engagement of the whole industry, including the farmers themselves and the public, private and civil sectors. Mobilizing policy and institutional support from government and from research, education and service providers can be a slow process but when farmers themselves are leading the transformation, there is much higher probability of success.