To Till or Not To Till

July 14, 2015

By Amelia Hood


This blog post examines no-till agriculture, its evolution over time, and its role as climate-smart agriculture. The Global Food Ethics Initiative seeks to determine the extent to which existing climate-smart strategies are also climate-just.

 “We must… revise our ideas as to the nature of the material upon which we can depend for sustenance. We certainly cannot depend upon the almost white soils we now cultivate with the plow.” –Edward Faulkner, The Plowman’s Folly, 1943

Faulkner’s startling monograph delivered a scathing critique of the mechanization (of the plow) that ultimately led to the desertification of the American Midwest in the 1930s, displacing thousands and plunging the United States further into the Great Depression.


His proposed method of no-till agriculture was seen as a solution to soil erosion caused by plowing. No-till has spread through North, Central, and South America, where it is used on large percentages of arable land (as high as 71% in Argentina). In addition to retaining topsoil, mulching with crop residue and intercropping or rotating crops has led to less agricultural runoff, better water management, and increased yields in these regions.


With its successes in the Western Hemisphere, agricultural R&D firms, including FAO and CGIAR, incorporated no-till into the recent move towards “climate-smart agriculture.” In lower latitudes, particularly, climate change will affect farmers’ ability to grow food. This movement seeks to intensify production for economic development, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture. No-till is an adaptation that is seemingly low-cost and low-risk to the farmer.


The evidence of no-till’s ability to reduce emissions and trap GHGs in the soil was largely inferred through evidence of the damage done by conventional agriculture. As no-till spread and data was collected, it was found that differences in GHG emissions between no-till and conventional agriculture were minimal.


However, no-till is still seen as beneficial, although now with more disclaimers. It has been abandoned as a means to reduce GHG emissions, and increases in yield and improvements in water management are no longer expected universally. Instead, no-till fields are considered more resilient in a changing climate. Evidence from Central and South America has shown that yields increased steadily over time, and yields remained stable during times of drought.


Although no-till is widely promoted as a low-cost, low-risk adaptation, some farmers (especially in Africa) aren’t buying it. A closer examination of these non-participants reveals complex social and political reasons for keeping with conventional agriculture. In Zambia, for example, women typically used crop residue as fuel for the home. The extra time and labor of acquiring a new fuel source fell on them, at the expense of other household duties. In Zimbabwe, farmers preferred to till their fields because the cost of additional labor later in the season (for weeding) was too high to make the switch.


These are just two examples of the obstacles faced when promoting agricultural practices across the globe. Traditionally R&D firms have relied on evidence of one benefit in one region of the world (e.g. yield increases in Central America) to promote the practice elsewhere, and are often then forced to reconsider as local evidence comes in. Ignoring the social and political dynamics of the specific region as a whole creates a narrow view of the “benefits” of no-till agriculture. Strong consideration must be given to the local conditions beyond the ecology and economics of the farm, to understand the social, political, cultural and historical contexts in which these agriculture practices will operate, successfully or not. More critical use of the evidence of no-till agriculture’s benefits, and a broader consideration of its impacts on communities, will lead to a more just form of climate-smart agriculture.


A lesson can be learned from the promotion of no-till agriculture — ethical analysis of the consequences and benefits of the agricultural technology should be considered early on in different regional contexts before broad adoption is endorsed. In order to ensure fair outcomes in agricultural response to climate change, we need climate-smart technologies to also be climate-just.




Amelia Hood is a Research Assistant on the Global Food Ethics Initiative. She received her Master’s in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland and Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Linguistics from the University of Florida. Her Master’s thesis focused on the economic sustainability of fisheries and fair wages for small-scale fishermen.


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