Innovation of the Week: Zero Tillage

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In Tanzania, a trainer demonstrates the use of a Brazilian-made direct seeder (photo credit: FAO)

In Tanzania, a trainer demonstrates the use of a Brazilian-made direct seeder (photo credit: FAO)

By Abby Massey

In agriculture, sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to soil quality. Monoculture crops—such as corn and soybeans—rely heavily on tractors for tilling the soil. And while these practices have raised yields over the last sixty years, they’ve also done a lot of damage to soils. Over turning dirt can lead to dryness and erosion, expediting the loss of nutrients in the soil that crops need to thrive.

Zero tillage, on the other hand, helps retain moisture, prevent erosion, and conserve nutrients.  The soil is covered with plant remains from the previous season’s crops or any additional organic matter such as animal dung. And seeds are planted in untilled soil in drilled holes or narrow ditches.

In Argentina, according to IFPRI’s Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, it is estimated that the use of zero tillage in soybean cultivation has lead to a total gain of $4.7 billion dollars since 1991. In addition, in the years between 1993 and 1999, zero tillage farming led to the creation of 200,000 farming and extension related jobs.

In the Indo-Gangetic plains in Northeastern India, rice-wheat cultivation increased as a result of technological development of zero tillage drills. In the 1990s, a drill for creating holes in untilled soil was developed, and distributed at a low cost. The affordability and accessibility of the technology led to the widespread use of the technique in the area. Today zero or reduced tilling makes up one fifth to one fourth of wheat production there. According to Millions Fed, studies show that farmers could increase incomes by $97 per hectare of land because of improved production and a cut in the cost and time that goes into soil preparation.

According to a 2004 study from FAO and IFAD farmers in Tanzania, using tools made specifically for zero tillage agriculture saved 75 percent of the time usually spent on clearing land and preparing the fields. And elsewhere in Eastern Africa, the FAO partnering with the African Conservation Tillage Network, is helping implement a three-year conservation agriculture project, reaching 4,000 farmers in Kenya and Tanzania. Through the project, farmers in Africa will be connected to farmers in Brazil to gain education and extension directly from those who have already benefited from this “less is more” method of planting.

Abby Massey is a Food and Agriculture Intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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