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No-till and Conservation Agriculture

Conservation agricultural (CA) practices emerged in the wake of the 1930s Dustbowl and repeated droughts of the early 1950s in the Great Plains of the United States.  Today, agricultural experts regard CA as ascendant due to its economic as well as environmental benefits.  Typically, full CA is defined as an entire suite of methods that incorporate direct seeding/no-till; use of non-cash cover crops such as clover or peas to fix nitrogen in the soil; and manure injection where livestock is present.

Like Low-till/incorporation, conservation agriculture does not usually require large-scale infrastructure investment where markets are lacking or inadequately developed. CA also is well-suited to small- and medium-sized fields with a complex cropping calendar and multi-crop systems.

In a changing climate, CA practices are ideal for improving soil fertility and crop yields, providing adaptation benefits as extreme weather events (drought and heavy rains) become more frequent.  This is achieved through greater moisture retention in dry periods, as seeding occurs through non-plowed stubble; as well as decreased erosion in the opposite extreme of heavy rains, since the remaining stubble also holds soil in place. This same effect decreases run-off of fertilizer, at the same time as fertilizer use can be decreased by 25-30% due to greater retention of nutrients in the soil.  This also benefits local waterways through lower pollution and eutrophication levels.  In addition, the UNEP Emissions Gap and other studies have identified CA as a primary means to meet the two-degree goal, with a consensus that these methods fix more soil carbon than traditional plowing methods.  This effect, under active study opens up both no-burn, and especially CA methods to the possibility of concessional climate financing.

Farmers on millions of hectares around the world have transitioned to direct seed technology, even without full-scale conservation agriculture (and it should be noted that in a few cases, farmers using direct seeding techniques also burn stubble, such that burning should be addressed directly and not assumed with this alternative).  As most farms tend to change out machinery on a 5-10 year cycle, timely education and extension services promoting this transition can allow for rapid change.