A scientific study has shown for the first time that farmers can continue to produce high crop yields with very little use of artificial fertilizers if they adopt environmentally sustainable practices.
Techniques such as adding compost and fertilizer to the soil, growing nitrogen-fixing crops between crops, and growing a variety of produce rather than sticking to a single crop can increase yields while protecting and enhancing a farm’s natural ecosystem.
The study found that adopting these practices would be enough to replace a significant portion of chemical fertilizer, the cost of which has increased due to high fuel prices and the war in Ukraine.
Chloe McLaren, crop ecologist at Rothamsted Research in the UK and lead author of the article published in the journal Nature Sustainability on Monday, said: “Reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers will help protect farmers and consumers from economic shocks such as the current surge of fertilizer costs and the consequent increase in food prices. Widespread use of these practices could also contribute to a more equitable global distribution of fertilizers.”
In the study, scientists analyzed 30 long-running experiments on farms in Europe and Africa to assess how natural farming methods can improve yields.
They found that using sustainable farming techniques did not increase yields when used in addition to higher fertilizer rates on the scale normally used in agriculture, but in practice when adding some nitrogen to the soil. But produced the greatest yield.
Each of the analyzed experiments ran for nine years, and in total the study included data from more than 25,000 harvests of six crops: wheat, corn, oats, barley, sugar beets and potatoes. According to the researchers, the following experiments were necessary over several years, since short periods, especially in good or bad years, can lead to random results.
Adding animal manure to the soil results in a greater yield increase than plant-based compost or cuttings, while growing a variety of crops helps suppress weeds and disease. Growing legumes like beans and clover adds nitrogen to the soil, which improves its fertility.
Fertilizer prices have more than tripled in some cases, partly due to high fuel prices, which rose as the world recovered from the economic shock of COVID-19 but was exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Since Russia and Ukraine are major producers of synthetic fertilizers, the conflict has also tightened supply and further pushed up prices.
These price hikes have angered farmers and resulted in higher food prices for consumers. Many countries have already had food problems because their reserves were depleted during the pandemic. Extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis have caused heat waves, droughts and floods in key regions of the world, and caused further crop damage.
Sign up for the first issue, our free daily newsletter – every weekday at 7am CET
The combination of these effects has created a global food crisis, with aid agencies warning that nearly 200 million people are facing acute hunger or even “starvation-like” conditions, while millions more face shortages in developing countries. Poor people in industrialized countries are also increasingly confronted with hardship as rising food prices and rampant inflation eat away at household budgets.
McLaren said: “Our results show that [ecological farming methods] could play an important role in the development of sustainable agricultural systems in the future… no doubt has benefits beyond yield such as: B. reducing costs, reducing pollution or providing other valuable agricultural products.”
Some agricultural practices can be changed relatively quickly, such as B. the careful application of animal manure to improve the soil or the cultivation of “cover crops”.
Fertilizer overuse is a serious problem in developed countries, where farmers have become dependent on synthetic chemicals to nourish their crops. Poorly applied fertilizer enters rivers and watercourses, where it can cause pollution and algal blooms that kill fish and other wildlife.