Spreading the word about the no-till agricultural revolution

Never heard of no-till agriculture? It's revolutionising agriculture in Australia and other drylands countries. "No-Till Bill", a pioneer in the technique, is now spreading the word in Europe. 

An example of crops grown through no-till farming in Western Australia (Photo: Bill Crabtree)

By the late Seventies it had become almost impossible to farm much of the land in the state of Western Australia. Due to the arid climate and the large extent of wind erosion, the sandy soils were exhausted, and the process of land degradation seemed irreversible.

In the early Nineties, however, a group of Australian farmers decided to try out new ways of cultivating their fields. They adopted no-tillage techniques [PDF], which aim to minimise disruption to the soil by growing crops and pastures without ploughing the land and by leaving crop residue on the field after the harvest.

The result was a real no-till revolution, which has radically transformed the rural landscape. Large areas of degraded agricultural land* have been become productive again. Crop yields have dramatically improved and farm profits have stabilised, despite the severe droughts that repeatedly hit the region. Today, more than 95 per cent of the agricultural land in Western Australia* is farmed under no-tillage and the rate of adoption is growing fast in other regions, such as the states of Victoria and South Australia.

IIED hosted the initiator and one of the key figures of the Australian no-till revolution: Bill Crabtree, also known as "No-Till Bill", on 28 March to share lessons on how it came about.

Most farmers plough their land before they sow their crops. This tillage aerates the soil but leaves it vulnerable to erosion by wind and water and is a key cause of land degradation. In many parts of the drylands water scarcity, salinisation and loss of biodiversity further exacerbate soil erosion.

Land degradation is a serious environmental problem that poses a threat to food production and rural livelihoods. It reduces agricultural productivity, leaving communities more vulnerable and unstable. In extreme cases, where damage to ecosystems is irreversible, communities are forced to migrate to survive. Land degradation costs an estimated US$40 billion annually worldwide according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, without taking into account the hidden costs of increased fertiliser use, loss of biodiversity and loss of unique landscapes.

Bill came to IIED to share his experience gained over the past 25 years as a farmer, researcher and agricultural extension worker putting no-till techniques into practice in Australia. He now promotes no-till farming as a consultant. The seminar entitled "No-till farming and the search for sustainability in dryland agriculture", was jointly organised by IIED and the Tropical Agricultural Association (TAA). His presentation can be viewed on IIED's SlideShare site and below.

He also agreed to to a video interview in which he explained how no-till works, how it improves soil health through increased organic matter and water retention capacity, and why conservation agriculture contributes to mitigate climate change.

Bill shared some of the factors that helped farmers adopt no-till agriculture in Australia. Access to technical knowledge and research was important but, interestingly, social processes that allowed farmers to meet and share ideas were also critical.

Farmers gathered into the Western Australian No-Tillage Farmers Association, which allowed them to stand up against the dominant model of agricultural production, based on heavy mechanised tillage operations and chemical inputs. Bill noted that in spite of being environmentally unsustainable, this model was – and still is – very hard to dismiss, not just in Australia but in the rest of the world, due to scientific and cultural biases that support it, but also because of the corporate interests behind it.

Farmers meeting, sharing knowledge and then experimenting and adapting different technological mixes suited to their specific needs and conditions was an important determinant for the successful adoption of no-till agriculture in Australia. Bill used himself as an example. He experimented and ended up adopting only some of the principles of conservation agriculture.

The three basic principles to conservation agriculture are rotating the crops grown on the land, reducing soil disturbance and permanently covering the soil with crops or crop residue. Farmers grow cover crops, crops grown between the annual crops, to protect and provide nutrients for the soil. The crops can also serve as fodder for livestock.

Bill uses crop residues as mulch and he rotates wheat with canola, trit and lupins*. He acknowledged that doing both would further enhance his soil’s health and yields. Bill also applies herbicides (although in a way that seeks to avoid resistance) but said that growing cover crops would be a more ecological and viable option for poorer farmers.

Farmers are increasingly adopting no-till farming techniques around the world. The amount of land farmed in this way has increased from 45 million ha in 1999 to 111 million ha in 2009 [PDF], corresponding to an average growth rate of 6 million ha per annum. In South America, where the techniques have been adopted most enthusiastically, no-tillage farming is being carried out on about 70 per cent of the total cultivated area. In the United States and Brazil, the rates of adoption range from 20 to 70 per cent of the total cultivated area for major commercial crops.

However many other regions, including Europe, are lagging behind. The Green Carbon Conference in Brussels is aiming to change that by accelerating the adoption of no-till and conservation farming in Europe. Bill aims to share his experience and inform policy makers and other stakeholders about how no-till agriculture can mitigate the effects of climate change at the conference.

Europe and Australia may seem like very different places, but many Mediterranean countries have climatic and agro-ecological conditions similar to the drylands of Western Australia. European farmers looking to adapt to the effects of climate change and develop more sustainable agricultural techniques could learn a thing or two from Australian farmers like Bill.

* Minor amendments were made to these area of this blog at Bill Crabtree's request on 11 April to provide clarification.

Laura Silici is a researcher in IIED's natural resources group (laura.silici@iied.org