Study: In Becoming The Bread Basket, Midwest Contributed To Climate Change. But There’s A Solution

New research suggests that no-till farming could help mitigate climate change.

A study from Iowa State University, released Monday, examined Midwest land use between 1850 to 2015. As agriculture and the practice of tilling spread, less carbon was being stored in the ground and more was going into the atmosphere. That added to the carbon emissions already accumulating from burning coal and driving cars.

A solution, according to study co-author Chaoqun Lu, is ending tilling.

“When you reduce tillage intensity, (we) kind of reduce the disturbance on soil and reduce carbon loss,” she said.

The idea of “healthy soil” is catching on across the agricultural sector, NPR reported recently. And some farmers are going no-till, University of Illinois researcher Ben Gramig said, because it’s saving them money on things like equipment, labor and gas at a time that crop prices are low.

“Those benefits may not be experienced, especially in terms of climate change mitigation, until a long time in the future,” Gramig said. “So it’s hard to think about that as a driver of choices that have to be made today when people are running a business and taking care of a family.”

Gramig added that even if someone switches to no-till for years, a single till down the road would release most of the carbon that had been captured by the plants who use it to grow.

While public policies could incentivize farmers to switch to no-till, he said farmers can also help capture carbon by planting perennials —the plants that come back every year.

When it comes to increasing yields and mitigating carbon emissions, Lu said that fertilizing existing fields is more important than taking over land that hasn’t been farmed.

“The soil carbon density is much higher than other land-use types,”she said of unfarmed land. “So if we expanded agriculture production to [wildlands] it may make this consequence even worse.”