Washington (GGM) Analysis | February 10, 2021 by Catherine Zacuto, M. Ed.
What can be done about climate change? A lot! Many of us are busy making significant changes in our everyday habits to become more sustainable and lower our carbon footprints. However, there are a few tricks that have yet to be applied on a grand scale, and now’s the time. If you compost, you are part of a growing wave of people concerned about soil health. Because soil stores a significant amount of carbon, keeping it there is vital in the fight against climate change. This is especially significant in agriculture, with its vast acreage. Soil, not to be confused with dirt, is an ecosystem in itself, with millions of microbes and insects which are responsible for plant growth. Maintaining a natural, undisturbed balance in the soil’s ecosystem leads to a higher level of carbon storage as well as strong, healthy crops. “No-till” farms help make this happen. They are an arrow in our quiver of weapons to fight climate change.
What’s the heart of the matter? Tilling the soil began thousands of years ago, with the invention of the plow. While many iterations of the basic plow emerged over the centuries, the technique’s harmful consequences have only recently become common knowledge. Tilling the soil disrupts its natural covering, leaving it more susceptible to erosion by wind and water. It releases carbon into the air and kills the really important microbes and insects in the soil’s ecosystem. The good news is that no-till farming avoids these damaging outcomes. It’s a technique being used by conservationist farmers doing their part to cultivate healthy, carbon-rich soil.
Great civilizations such as Greece and China suffered the consequences of soil erosion due to poor soil cultivation. In ancient Greece, it has been found that soil erosion increased dangerously only after the introduction of the plow. In ancient China, it was deforestation that led to the flooding of vast swaths of land and tragic consequences for towns and villages. Time and again, despite attempts to curb soil erosion by terracing and contour plowing, societies’ destructive practices slowed or stopped crop production. Societies were weakened and left vulnerable to invasions. Growing populations were forced to migrate to new lands. Civilizations collapsed, directly or indirectly, from poor soil management.
The human impact on soil has a long, destructive history, and not much has changed. In recent history, an entire industry developed around artificially improving depleted soil. Using a variety of chemicals on soil across the agricultural fields of the U.S. and beyond “led to an unprecedented increase in food production, but also contributed to global warming and the pollution of aquifers, rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems.” And so, the rise of the no-till movement.
How does no-till farming help you? It’s clear that not plowing the soil has impressive advantages for the health of our planet. In addition, no-till farming practices benefit the farmer as well. No-till farms:
- leave stored carbon in place, where it can do its job in the soil ecosystem.
- take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere naturally, without harming land and water resources.
- preserve the soil cover, allowing water to permeate the soil and reducing erosion.
- diminish the amount of pollution streaming into nearby rivers and lakes because of improved absorption.
- create a healthy soil ecosystem that grows stronger over time to produce healthy crops and prevent disease.
- decrease the need to irrigate because water evaporates more slowly from an untilled field.
What can you do to help keep carbon in the soil? In the past 300 years, we’ve degraded our soil by 50%. Something must be done to reverse the trend. While no-till farming practices will not solve all of our climate issues, they can make a difference. For farmers with lots of acres or just one, consider making the change to no-till farming. Check out the resources to learn more. (Some are listed below.) You might not be a farmer, so what can you do? Educate yourself further about no-till farming practices. Be an expert who influences others; engaging in conversations is the beginning of change! Locate and support local farmers who practice no-till farming, and share the contact information with your neighbors. In the meantime, continue your day-to-day sustainability practices like composting, recycling, and upcycling. We are all in this together, and it will take all of us to make a positive change.
- Learn more about no-till farming practices.
- Support your local no-till farm.
- Use no-till practices in your yard.
- Reduce your carbon emissions by walking or biking.
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