Limited potential of no-till agriculture for climate change mitigation

Abstract

The Emissions Gap Report 2013 from the United Nations Environment Programme restates the claim that changing to no-till practices in agriculture, as an alternative to conventional tillage, causes an accumulation of organic carbon in soil, thus mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration. But these claims ignore a large body of experimental evidence showing that the quantity of additional organic carbon in soil under no-till is relatively small: in large part apparent increases result from an altered depth distribution. The larger concentration near the surface in no-till is generally beneficial for soil properties that often, though not always, translate into improved crop growth. In many regions where no-till is practised it is common for soil to be cultivated conventionally every few years for a range of agronomic reasons, so any soil carbon benefit is then lost. We argue that no-till is beneficial for soil quality and adaptation of agriculture to climate change, but its role in mitigation is widely overstated.

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Figure 1: Mexican farmer practising no-till crop establishment.

MICHELLE DEFREESE / CIMMYT

Figure 2: Changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) content in soil under no-till compared to conventional tillage.

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Acknowledgements

Parts of this work result from studies on the climate change mitigation impacts of conservation agriculture conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center funded by the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

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Correspondence to David S. Powlson.

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Powlson, D., Stirling, C., Jat, M. et al. Limited potential of no-till agriculture for climate change mitigation. Nature Clim Change 4, 678–683 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2292

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