Biotech crops are fueling further reductions in cultivation of agricultural crops, resulting in less soil erosion, better air and water quality, less fossil fuel consumption, reduced release of greenhouse gasses and more natural habitat, according to a study released by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) at the World Food Prize Symposium.
The comprehensive study largely credits the introduction of biotech crops with a 35 percent increase in no-till acres, the practice where crops are grown without any soil tillage such as plowing. Eliminating tillage is possible because farmers have confidence they can control weeds that compete with crops for nutrients, water and sunlight by growing crop varieties with built-in tolerance to certain herbicides, the report says.
“Nearly all growth in no-till acreage occurred where herbicide-tolerant crop varieties can help farmers control weeds without needing to repeatedly disrupt precious topsoil,” said Dan Towery, CTIC natural resources specialist who co-authored the study.
“As a result, society is reaping another wave of environmental benefits associated with further reducing tillage on our farmland.”
According to the study, conservation tillage and the conservation reserve program have reduced soil erosion by 1 billion tons per year — an improvement of 30 percent since the early 1980s when traditional plowing methods were more common.
Reducing sediment flow into streams and rivers improves water quality and aquatic habitat and eases flooding, Towery said.
Minimizing sediment flow is particularly helpful because soil often carries organic carbon that reacts with chlorine in water treatment systems to create carcinogens that must be filtered and removed. The study credits reduced tillage practices with a $3.5 billion savings in 2002 in water treatment and storage, waterway maintenance, navigation, fishing, flooding and lost recreation costs.
“Americans now have cleaner and more affordable drinking water because farmers tripled the number of acres they plant with conservation tillage in the past two decades, but we can do even better as more farmers plant biotech crops and convert to no-till farming systems,” Towery said. “This is especially important as our world's experts are gathered to grapple with the issues of water availability and water quality.”
Because conservation tillage requires fewer trips across the field for weed control, farmers are using 306 million fewer gallons of fuel per year to power their equipment. It also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air by as much as 1 billion pounds per year over the traditional plowing practices of a generation ago.
In addition to building healthier soils, the study concluded cropland in conservation tillage provides a more hospitable environment for wildlife, such as birds and insects. The study noted wildlife, such as quail, thrives by cutting the time of their daily hunt for food by as much as 80 percent in no-till soybean fields versus traditional plowed soybean fields.