Agriculture depends on fertile soils and society depends on clean water. With the intensification of farming it has become increasingly important to protect our natural resources.
Present arable cropping systems rely on mechanical cultivation of the soil to ensure a good quality seedbed, and well tilled soil to reduce competition between crops and weeds.
However, these cropping systems can be damaging to the soil, increasing the risk of soil erosion and runoff and damaging the biodiversity of the soil. Over 40% of UK farmland is officially categorised as being ‘vulnerable’ to soil erosion, and an estimated three million tonnes of soil is washed into UK rivers and drainage systems every year.
The Soil and Water Protection Project, (SOWAP) was an EU Life £4 million, three year project conducted on test sites in the UK and Europe. It set out to examine practical and economically viable solutions to these soil erosion issues. Syngenta led and co-funded the work which involved many organisations, NGOs, academics, farmers and members of our industry.
The project involved sophisticated monitoring of soil and water movement on several sites in the UK and Europe, and compared standard farm practices with new conservation agriculture techniques and other innovative cultivation solutions.
One such solution the project examined was the idea of minimum tillage agriculture. Rather than deeply ploughing a field, the farmer instead uses machinery to sow crop seeds with as little soil disturbance as possible, and with herbicides to control weeds before the crops began to grow. The results were impressive.
Soil losses were reduced by up to 80% using these conservation tillage methods. This also led to increased biodiversity both above and below ground; Earthworms and birds both thrived in the improved habitats. Water quality was improved as the run off from fields contained less nutrients and sediment, so aquatic ecosystems and plant-life in conservation tillage catchments were improved.
SOWAP demonstrated that vital resources can be preserved whilst at the same time increasing local biodiversity. The essential findings of the SOWAP field studies were published by EU LIFE in 2007. This research will help policymakers and advisors promote greater adoption of minimum tillage by farmers to further improve the environmental performance of agriculture in Europe.