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Earth Day 2017: Celebrating Soil Health!

April 19, 2017
Saturday, April 22, 2017, is Earth Day.  At BIO, Earth Day is a reminder of the many ways that biotechnology has helped revolutionize farming and make it more environmentally friendly.  Not only are the world’s farmers producing more food than ever before, we’re able to do it in ways that conserve water, preserve soil nutrients, lessen the need for pesticide applications and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the little-known environmental benefits of GMO crops is the increased use of conservation tillage.  Prior to biotechnology, farmers would have to till the soil to control weeds. But tilling can cause soil erosion, destroy soil structure, reduce soil quality and deplete the soil's organic matter.

[caption id="attachment_25061" align="alignleft" width="290"] Soybeans grow in a field of corn residues from the previous year; no tillage was done prior to planting, to save soil, energy, time and money. (Photo courtesy of NRCS)[/caption]

GMO herbicide-tolerant crops allow farmers to plant directly into residue left from last season’s crop, without tilling the residue into the subsurface.

Studies show conservation tillage, especially no-till, reduces soil erosion by up to 90 percent and keeps important nutrients, water and carbon in the soil, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) is a national, public-private partnership that envisions agriculture using environmentally beneficial and economically viable natural resource systems. (CTIC, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is comprised of members of ag industry, ag publications, ag associations, conservation organizations and producers and is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and other public entities.)

On its website, the CTIC lists its “Top 10 Conservation Tillage Benefits.” These conservation tillage systems offer numerous benefits that intensive or conventional tillage simply can’t match:

  1.  Reduces labor, saves time:  As little as one trip for planting - compared to two or more tillage operations - means fewer hours on a tractor and fewer labor hours to pay ... or more acres to farm. For example, on 500 acres the time savings can be as much as 225 hours per year. That’s almost four 60-hour weeks.

  2. Saves fuel:  Save an average 3.5 gallons an acre or 1,750 gallons on a 500-acre farm.

  3. Reduces machinery wear:  Fewer trips save an estimated $5 per acre on machinery wear and maintenance costs - a $2,500 savings on a 500-acre farm.

  4. Improves soil tilth:  A continuous no-till system increases soil particle aggregation (small soil clumps) making it easier for plants to establish roots. Improved soil tilth also can minimize compaction. Of course, compaction is also reduced by reducing trips across the field.

  5. Increases organic matter:  The latest research shows the more soil is tilled, the more carbon is released to the air and the less carbon is available to build organic matter for future crops. In fact, carbon accounts for about half of organic matter.

  6. Traps soil moisture to improve water availability:  Keeping crop residue on the surface traps water in the soil by providing shade. The shade reduces water evaporation. In addition, residue acts as tiny dams slowing runoff and increasing the opportunity for water to soak into the soil. Another way infiltration increases is by the channels (macropores) created by earthworms and old plant roots. In fact, continuous no-till can result in as much as two additional inches of water available to plants in late summer.

  7. Reduces soil erosion:  Crop residues on the soil surface reduce erosion by water and wind. Depending on the amount of residues present, soil erosion can be reduced by up to 90 percent compared to an unprotected, intensively tilled field.

  8. Improves water quality:  Crop residue helps hold soil along with associated nutrients (particularly phosphorous) and pesticides on the field to reduce runoff into surface water. In fact, residue can cut herbicide runoff rates in half. Additionally, microbes that live in carbon-rich soils quickly degrade pesticides and utilize nutrients to protect groundwater quality.

  9. Increases wildlife:  Crop residues provide shelter and food for wildlife, such as game birds and small animals.

  10. Improves air quality:  Crop residue left on the surface improves air quality because it: Reduces wind erosion, thus it reduces the amount of dust in the air; Reduces fossil fuel emissions from tractors by making fewer trips across the field; and Reduces the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by tying up more carbon in organic matter.

The Global firm, PG Economics, releases a Global Impacts Study each year quantifying the benefits of biotech crops.  In its most recent study, it states:
"Crop biotechnology has contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This results from less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2014, this was equivalent to removing 22.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 10 million cars from the road for one year."

The ecological benefits of conservation tillage are clear, but what does it actually mean for farmers and how, after thousands of years as a mainstay of agricultural production, have we become less reliant on tilling?

Kate Hall, managing director of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers spokesperson, answers this question in a recent column in Forbes, “Why Soil Health Matters & How GMOs Play A Key Role”:
"Advances in biotechnology, particularly the development of GMO crops, have been instrumental in facilitating conservation tillage and resulting improvements in soil health. The development of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops was a breakthrough. By allowing farmers a highly effective and reliable means to fight weeds by chemical means, GMOs have reduced reliance on tillage for weed control and made it easier and less risky for farmers to adopt more sustainable production strategies."

GMO Answers explains this in an infographic “GMOs Improve Soil Health.”  You can view more infographics, videos and read more about how GMOs help make farming more Earth-friendly on the GMO Answers website.