Reducing The Environmental Footprint of Farming

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With man induced emissions now virtually endangering the future of our planet, efforts are made in nearly every segment of the economy to squeeze greenhouse gas emissions to environmentally sustainable levels. Efforts range from the development of energy efficient practices to using clean sources of energy. This article introduces the ways in which the agricultural industry can shift to greener operation through tillage practices and through parting with the use of fossil fuels.

The most important factors in determining the extent of environmental impact of agricultural activities are the use of chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers as well as the greenhouse gas emissions of tractors and other mostly diesel powered machines used in agricultural production. The use of herbicides and pesticides is a ‘necessary evil’ to protect yields, but advancements have been made in developing more resistant crop varieties. The use of these new crop varieties can significantly reduce the need for spraying and thus the environmental effects thereof.

However, the use of fertilizers is a completely different issue. Even the best hybrids will require high quality topsoil with a large amount of nutrients for producing high yields. Nevertheless, the use of chemical fertilizers can be diminished via the application of advanced tillage technologies such as mulch tillage that use the residue from previous crop plantation as organic fertilizer mixed into the topsoil. Another desirable effect of mulch tillage is that the residue incorporation and the mulch layer on top of the soil increase the soil’s water absorption and retention capability so there is a reduced need for irrigation in seasons of drought.

As a form of minimum tillage, mulch tillage also offers a solution for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by tractors. Mulch cultivators, the main implements of mulch tillage, are designed to perform a multiple of operations in a single pass – often creating a seedbed directly from the stubble left after harvesting. The reduced number of passes results in lower amount of fuel necessary for performing the tillage implements. Experience shows that the adoption of mulch cultivators can result in up to 60% reduction in the amount of fuel used in tillage operations, and hence in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as well. In addition to this, it is also suggested that the reduced turning of the soil also results in lower emissions of carbon-dioxide by the soil itself.

In addition to the above mentioned methods, agricultural production of crops could soon become completely independent of fossil fuels by producing its own biofuel. Certain oleic seeds like soy and canola could well become the source of fuel for agricultural equipment. The industry does not even need to go as far as producing biodiesel from these seeds because the vegetable oil produced from these crops via cold is suitable for fuel for diesel engines without further processing. In some countries, the use of cold pressed vegetable oil as fuel is already becoming a common practice. It is believed that roughly 15% of the total land area of a given farm would be sufficient to produce fuel for the cultivation of the entire farm. As such, the agriculture industry is one of the few industries to have a realistic alternative for completely substituting fossil fuels with a zero-emission alternative.

Pal Farkas, Ph.D. is the author of this article on Mulch Tillage .
Find more information on Mulch Cultivators here.

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