Young, no-till soybeans in central Iowa.
Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Young, no-till soybeans in central Iowa.

Conservation Agriculture

Reduce SourcesFood, Agriculture, and Land UseShift Agriculture Practices
Support SinksLand SinksShift Agriculture Practices
CO2 Equivalent
Reduced / Sequestered
Billion $US
Net First Cost
(To Implement Solution)
Trillion $US
Lifetime Net
Operational Savings
Billion $US
Net Profit
Conservation agriculture uses cover crops, crop rotation, and minimal tilling in the production of annual crops. It protects soil, avoids emissions, and sequesters carbon.

Solution Summary*

Plows are absent on farms practicing conservation agriculture, and for good reason. When farmers till their fields to destroy weeds and fold in fertilizer, water in the freshly turned soil evaporates. Soil itself can be blown or washed away and carbon held within it released into the atmosphere. Tilling can make a field nutrient poor and less life-giving.

Conservation agriculture was developed in Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, and adheres to three core principles:

  1. Minimize soil disturbance: absent tilling, farmers seed directly into the soil.
  2. Maintain soil cover: farmers leave crop residues after harvesting or grow cover crops.
  3. Manage crop rotation: farmers change what is grown and where.

The Latin root of conserve means “to keep together.” Conservation agriculture abides by these principles to keep the soil together as a living ecosystem that enables food production and helps redress climate change.

Conservation agriculture sequesters a relatively small amount of carbon—an average of half a metric ton per acre. But given the prevalence of annual cropping around the world, those metric tons add up. Because conservation agriculture makes land more resilient to climate-related events such as long droughts and heavy downpours, it is doubly valuable in a warming world.

* excerpted from the book, Drawdown

Based on historic growth on large farming operations, our analysis projects the total area under conservation agriculture will continue growing from 148 million hectares to peak at 400–327 million hectares by 2035. We assume that as regenerative annual cropping becomes more widely used, farms that have already adopted conservation agriculture will convert to these more effective soil fertility practices in response to consumer demand for fewer harmful herbicides. The benefits of that conversion are counted by the regenerative annual cropping solution. Nonetheless, conservation agriculture offers significant benefits in the interim, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 13.4–9.4 gigatons based on average carbon sequestration rates of 0.25–0.78 metric tons of carbon per hectare per year, depending on region. Establishment costs are low at US$91.9–65.2 billion with a lifetime operational savings of US$2.8–1.9 trillion and lifetime net profit of US$113.1–77.7 billion.