Going green doesn’t always require a sacrifice. A recent study shows that farmers who embrace sustainable cultivation measures like soil tillage and the incorporation of prairie strips and hedgerows into their fields, are able to maintain their crop yields. What’s more, in several cases these greener measures actually increase production.
The study, which does one of the first truly large-scale analyses into the environmental and economic benefits of eco-friendly farming—suggests that diversifying farming practices really could be a win-win for the planet, and for farmers’ bottom lines.
The international team of researchers based their analysis on a huge body of research, comprising 5,000 studies that explored almost 42,000 farming systems across multiple countries and environments. From this library of data, they identified six fundamental sustainable farming methods, including the diversification of crop species, adding wildlife habitat to farmland, reducing soil tillage, and enriching soil with organic matter. Then they analyzed the dataset to reveal how environmentally beneficial each of these measures is, and how they impact crop yield.
In the large majority of cases (63%) these greener methods boosted biodiversity, but without any cost to farmers’ yields, signaling a mutual win for people and the planet. In several cases in fact, crop yields actually increased as a consequence of greener farming methods, compared to more traditional approaches that dominate modern-day agriculture, like monoculture and heavy tilling.
Upon closer analysis, the study showed that crop increases were linked, in particular, to greening methods that improved soil fertility, and nutrient cycling. That makes sense, because these are features that increase soil health, making resources more available for crops to absorb, and leading to more productive growth, the researchers explain.
And while the environmental gains of eco-friendly farming methods might seem intuitive, there actually isn’t much data to show this link definitively: this study is one of the first to so comprehensively show the connection.
The researchers found that in almost 70% of cases, diversification tactics led to positive effects on biodiversity, and enhanced ecosystem services. These included trickle-down effects like enhanced water quality, driven by improvements in soil health; boosted pollination as more insects are attracted to diversified crops and wildlife habitat that’s been incorporated into farmland; and the sequestration of carbon in soil through conservation measures like no-till.
Though, on the latter, the results were less defined. Climate regulation was the only area where the benefits of farmland diversification were much more variable across contexts. That was associated with the enrichment of soil with organic matter, which in some scenarios can lead to an increased expulsion of greenhouse gas emissions from the soil. However, in other contexts adding organic matter can actually promote carbon sequestration, as well as boosting soil nutrition and water quality—so this particular solution presents a complex set of effects on farming ecosystems.
This also indicates that green solutions don’t always lead to clear wins in every direction: the trick will be to “tune these techniques to specific crops and regions, maximize these benefits and reduce trade-offs that otherwise occur,” the researchers explain.
Overall, their analysis revealed a powerful synergy between greener farming tactics, environmental benefits, and crop yields. But there’s another crucial ingredient that’s required to truly make this work for the planet and our food systems—and that’s getting more farmers on board.
To put sustainable farming interventions within their grasp, countries will need to support the sharing of knowledge, the development of technologies and infrastructure, and perhaps the creation of subsidies and other incentives to encourage more farmers to take on their role as sustainable food producers.
Helpfully to this end, this new research firms up the evidence that planet-forward choices don’t have to be accompanied by economic loss – and that in fact, they can lead to gains. With agriculture increasingly moving towards monoculture and other destructive forms of food production, that’s a positive message that farmers—and the rest of the world—could really use.
Source: Tamburini et. al. “Agricultural diversification promotes multiple ecosystem services without compromising yield.” Science Advances. 2020.