Sustainable intensification agriculture

To till or not to till? By James Lambert

Grantham Scholar James Lambert introduces a letter published in Nature about a key question facing agriculture: to till or not to till?

Grantham Scholar James Lambert asks to till or not to till?
Grantham Scholar James Lambert.

Conservation agriculture

Productivity limits and potentials of the principles of conservation agriculture was published in Nature in 2015. It looks at the practise of conservation agriculture. And one of its notable features is that it showcases the need for interdisciplinary research in sustainability.

Conservation agriculture is a broad title for the combined practises of no-till farming, residue retention (keeping crop stubble in the field) and crop rotation. Overall, conservation agriculture aims to improve yields and reduce inputs on farms that are being affected negatively by climate change.

However the benefits are highly debated and often unsubstantiated. Further, until this letter, there had been no long-term meta-analysis study.

To till or not to till?

The study finds that when all of the practices are applied in rain fed, dry climate and arable lands, yield is significantly increased. As a result, food security in the region is positively impacted.

Climate change is creating ever-growing regions such as these, so it is important to understand these practices in more detail. However if only no-till was practised in these same regions then yields would significantly decrease.

Over 9% of global arable land uses no-till agriculture, yet there is still contested evidence as to its benefits. There has been coverage in the news recently about the quality of the world’s soils, especially in the UK. And as no-till vs. till directly impacts the soil structure and quality, I thought this would lead to an interesting discussion in our weekly Journal Club.

The letter is concise, yet it delivers a lot of information and gets across its findings well. I thought it would be good for the Grantham Scholars to read the paper purely for how it achieves this without the need for highly detailed discussions and interpretations.

Discussion about the paper

The first cohort of Grantham Scholars
The Grantham Scholars of 2015.

Many points were raised in the discussion. We focused on what was relevant but omitted from the study. For example, nutrient loss, and how conservation agriculture impacts the levels of essential nutrients in the soil as no-tilling may physically prevent their sequestration.

Animal feed

Another issue that was not covered in the paper was the impact on animal feed that residue retention would have. This is because in many subsistence-farming communities animals are fed the stubble from the harvest’s crop.

If residue retention were carried out (which this study suggests is the best option), then these subsistence farmers that they were trying to help would have to buy in food for their animals or move them to areas where they could graze – all unnecessary expenses.

Developed nations and subsistence farmers

The data used for this meta-analysis also appears to be heavily skewed towards developed nations who are not subsistence farmers or do not fall under the category of rain fed, dry climate and arable lands. This means that although the authors studied many data sets, very few data points would actually be applicable to the subsistence farmer.

How applicable these 3 techniques would be for a subsistence farmers was also questioned. Because the study states that residue retention and crop rotation are challenging in resource-poor areas. This would increase the likelihood of yield losses due to poor implementation, which was a key factor for the Grantham Scholars, as the potential benefits outweighed the likelihood of yield losses for many farmers.


So, to till or not to till? That is the question.

The majority of Scholars concluded that longer running studies should be planned and incorporated. But they also agreed that there should be more no-till agriculture for those who can do so whilst implementing the other principles of conservation agriculture.

Journal Club is meet up of Grantham Scholars to discuss publications from a multidisciplinary perspective. It is part of the Grantham Scholar training programme.

Edited by Claire Moran.

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