Our story starts during the early 19th century with some unplantable sticky thick sod in the US Midwest. Trying to solve the problem, John Deere, a local blacksmith, developed a steel moldboard plow that could break up the sod, weeds and plant residues. Called tilling, it transformed unusable acreage into fertile farmland.
Removing weeds and crop residue through annual tilling makes land more susceptible to erosion. It leads to more water pollution because the looser soil could facilitate insecticide runoff in lakes, rivers and streams and diminishes the variety of bugs and microbes and earthworms in the soil. One study also indicated the number of bird species can drop precipitously in tilled fields as can the soil’s ability to mitigate CO2.
So here we’ve got plowing, a farming mainstay for millennia, increasing water pollution, absorbing fewer greenhouse gases, and diminishing soil resiliency.
What to do?
Some say, “No-till.” Combine special seeders that create 1/2 to 3 inch grooves with extra herbicides and the plowing and its downside become unnecessary.
Others point out that the benefits of no-till depend on the soil, that with no-till yields can drop, and the switch is expensive. Concerned with the unknown, they worry that we could get new weeds, new pests and herbicide resistance.
Thinking economically, no-till took me to Joseph Schumpeter. Discussing resistance to innovation, Schumpeter described creative destruction. When an entire network of users and producers are threatened by an invention that requires considerable change, people frequently say no. In farming, the loyalty is to the plow.
Still though, the US and Australian governments have tried to encourage sustainable farming with no-till. Farmers who bought the $100,000 plus seeders, reduced plow dependency, and agreed to the uncertain productivity that no-till might generate received government support. You can see below where no-till has spread. In Asia and Africa though, the change has made much less sense. Unaffordable, the new methods would eliminate crop residues that farmers in poorer regions have been able to use as fuel and animal feed.
Please note these statistics are from 2004 but you can see the trends.
Sources and Resources: H/T to “wonkblog” at The Washington Post for an article that introduced me to “no-till” and had links to further detail that included this Scientific American research paper (the source of my graphics) and this Mother Jones story of a “no-tiller.” For more on Joseph Schumpeter , a fascinating economist, econlib is a great source for bios.