• Agriculture accounts for 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Tractor fuel, fertiliser and methane from cattle are some of the main contributing factors.
  • Tilling soil by breaking it up with ploughs also exposes carbon buried in the soil to oxygen in the air, allowing microbes to convert it to CO₂.
  • New research has explored the possibility of no-till farming, which found it produces up to 30% lower emissions.

Perhaps because there are no chimney stacks belching smoke, the contribution of the world’s farms to climate change seems somehow remote. But agriculture accounts for a staggering 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Tractors running on diesel release carbon dioxide (CO₂) from their exhausts. Fertilisers spread on fields produce nitrous oxide. And cattle generate methane from microbes in their guts.

Even tilling the soil – breaking it up with ploughs and other machinery – exposes carbon buried in the soil to oxygen in the air, allowing microbes to convert it to CO₂. Farmers usually do this before sowing crops, but what if they could avoid this step?

In newly published research from farms across the UK, we discovered that an alternative approach called no-till farming, which does not disturb soils and instead involves placing seeds in drilled holes in the earth, could slash greenhouse gas emissions from crop production by nearly a third and increase how much carbon soils can store.

The neat rows of raised soil on tilled fields might seem like an inevitable part of farming, but no-till agriculture has already become quite popular in other parts of the world, especially the US.

Only one machine is needed to drill the small seed holes required and it’s driven over the field just once. Compared to conventional methods where farmers use a range of equipment to till, harrow, sow and firm in the seed, the amount of soil disturbed during no-till farming is very small.

Tilling the soil in conventional farming creates large air pockets which fill up with oxygen, prompting microbes to turn carbon in the soil into CO₂. We compared the soil on tilled farms with fields prepared using the no-till approach by scanning them with X-rays – the same technique used in hospitals to examine broken bones.

The fields without tilling had fewer and smaller air pockets, which is why they generated less CO₂. Most of these pockets were created by burrowing earthworms and roots that thrived in the absence of ploughs and other tools disturbing the soil. There was still enough pores to let the soil drain well and allow roots to grow deeper in search of water though – an important additional benefit as droughts become more frequent under climate change.

a diagram showing how tiled and non-tilled soil compare
Conventionally tilled soils have more air pockets, which is where CO2 is generated.
Image: Cooper et al. (2021), Author provided

By keeping excess oxygen out of the soil and away from the microbes that live there, no-till farming ensures the carbon that builds up when plants die and decompose remains buried underground. The farms we studied that used the no-till approach accumulated more carbon in their soil over time, and the longer the soils were left undisturbed, the more carbon was stored.

It’s clear that undisturbed soils release less CO₂ to the atmosphere. But microbes in farmland soil can generate methane and nitrous oxide too, and these gases can be even worse for the climate. Methane is more than 20 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere as CO₂, and nitrous oxide is about 300 times as effective.

In our study, we combined measurements of all three greenhouse gases from traditionally tilled soil and fields managed using the no-till approach. We found that the latter produced 30% lower emissions in total, with the greatest reductions seen on farms that had been using no-till for the longest – around 15 years.

Not having to till the soil has other benefits, especially for farmers as there’s less preparation to do. It can dramatically reduce how much diesel farms need to burn, as farmers need less heavy machinery. That amounts to fewer costs overall.

Despite these advantages, farmers in the UK and across Europe have been slow to adopt no-till farming. A recent survey suggested as little as 7% of arable land in England is currently managed this way. When we asked farmers, many claimed the initial cost of buying a direct drilling machine put them off. Some were concerned that making the switch would lead to lower yield compared to their tried and tested methods.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Farms using the no-till method could produce less food at first if seeds struggle to germinate in the harder, less-oxygenated, uncultivated soil. This can be a problem in the early years of no-till farming. But evidence suggests that earthworms and roots can help restore a natural soil structure which reduces these problems over time. One study found no consistent differences in yield over the first ten years after a farm converted to no-till agriculture.

Such a shift is within reach for the agricultural sector in Europe, where the no-till method is still marginal, as the technology has been well-tested elsewere. If governments can incentivise farmers to switch to no-till agriculture, our soils will have a chance to resume their natural function and lock carbon away for decades.