We will look at a scenario whereby restrictions imposed internationally have resulted in the world no longer planting genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant crops. There would be an estimated annual loss of global farm income by approximately $6.76bn, as well as lower levels of global soybean, corn and canola production, which is equal to 18.6m tonnes, 3.1m tonnes and 1.44m tonnes respectively. This scenario is a feasible one as the EU recently debated the use of glyphosate (a herbicide) in the latest round of license renewals.
Further, there would be additional carbon emissions arising from both increased fuel usage and decreased soil carbon sequestration (a process in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil carbon pool). Erosion reduction of up to 90% could be achieved due to the decrease in required physical ploughing, and in those situations where less ploughing is required, it could be done shallower which would decrease both the amount of wear and tear on equipment, and the amount of fuel used. This ‘no-till’ farming has also gained traction using glyphosate as an ‘enabler’.
No-till farming (also known as ‘zero tillage’ or ‘direct drilling’) is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage or ploughing. This method of farming is beneficial in that it leaves behind high levels of crop residue whilst almost eliminating the erosion of soil. Ploughing and tillage are major sources of soil erosion around the globe and were key factors in the ‘Dust Bowl’ that was created in the 1930s (also known as the ‘Dirty Thirties’). In America on April 14th 1935 (also known as ‘Black Sunday’), twenty of the worst black blizzards occurred across the entire sweep of the Great Plains, from the south of Canada right down to Texas. The destruction led to multiple fatalities, whilst hundreds of thousands of people had to relocate.
The introduction of tractors during the twentieth century made it even easier to churn up fields, but as the negative impact of soil erosion became more evident around the globe, this started changing. The development of herbicides such as atrazine and paraquat in the 1940s/1950s allowed farmers to kill weeds without ploughing up more soil. This was swiftly followed by the invention of specialised seeding equipment in the 1960s, which provided the ability for farmers to plant while barely disturbing their soil.
These developments, combined with higher oil prices, further stimulated the spread and acceptance of no-till farming. As the technique was implemented across more farming communities, farmers found that they could conserve water, reduce erosion and use less fuel and labour to grow their crops. However, the other side of the equation is that no-till farming means a heavier use of chemical herbicides to kill weeds, which led to feelings of unease about the developments in many consumers and farmers.
Evidence suggest that yields improve with time when using a no-till approach, however they are slower to take hold, and making the switch over from tilling to no-tilling has been seen to correlate with a temporary drop in yields. No-till reduces labour, fuel use, irrigation and machinery costs whilst aiding yields because of higher water infiltration and storage capacity. Fallow periods are shorter and more crops can be introduced.
John Deere has been embracing the no-till industry with their range of planting solutions to farm better, and was able to spot the new market segment early on. Farmers now aim to spend less time in the field, and look for better-performing, more efficient equipment. However, a potential obstacle in the long-term would be overcoming the possibility of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate.
After two years of negotiations, the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG has acquired leading American agro-chemical company Monsanto in a US$ 63bn deal. The 117-year old company name will then be retired. The acquired products will retain their brand names, but will become part of the Bayer portfolio.
As an aside, this deal is the first of a series of major US-German merger deals to cross the finish line at a time of harsh criticism from US President Trump regarding Germany’s trade surplus with the US. Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile US plans to merge with Sprint for $26bn, while industrial gas makers Linde and Praxair are also seeking to combine.
With weather patterns becoming extreme through time, perhaps it is time to consider an even wider embrace of no-till farming. No-till helps to limit the wide-scale evaporation associated with deep ploughing of fields, which in turn means there would be less water content in the air that contributes to the extreme conditions. Tilling damages soil and leaves it exposed to erosion (particularly by wind and water), whereas no-till farming promotes bio-diversity in and around the soil.
Going forward, the agricultural industry must continue to evolve so that it can ultimately satisfy the growing global demand for agricultural products as the global population continues to grow.