Perspective

Limited potential of no-till agriculture for climate change mitigation

  • Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 678683 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate2292
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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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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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Sustainable Soils & Grassland Systems, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2JQ, UK

    • David S. Powlson
  2. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Conservation Agriculture Program, Apdo, Postal 6-641 06600 Mexico, Distrito Federal, Mexico

    • Clare M. Stirling
    •  & Bruno G. Gerard
  3. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, India Office, National Agricultural Science Centre Complex, Dev Prakash Shastri Marg, Pusa Campus, New Delhi 110012, India

    • M. L. Jat
  4. Agriculture and Food Security Center, The Earth Institute at Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Lamont Hall, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Cheryl A. Palm
    •  & Pedro A. Sanchez
  5. Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PO Box 830915, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583-0915, USA

    • Kenneth G. Cassman

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David S. Powlson.