By stopping tillage to preserve the earth’s natural organic matter, soil conservation agriculture restores its fertility. This sustainable production model, the seeds of which emerged in the late 1990s, seems promising in many respects. As well as maintaining life within the soil, it helps tackle the challenge of carbon storage, which is crucial in the fight against climate change. Still relatively new in France, soil conservation agriculture is attracting growing attention, in particular thanks to the work of APAD, a French association that promotes sustainable agriculture, and its international network. The association’s new President, François Mandin, explains.
What are the guiding principles and benefits of soil conservation agriculture (SCA)? In what way is it different from other forms of sustainable agriculture (e.g. permaculture, organic farming)?
The model is based on three key pillars. The first is no tillage, the intervention being limited to the sowing lines. So not only do we avoid any ploughing, we also stop all tillage, even on a superficial level. The second pillar is permanent soil cover: our aim is to never leave the soil bare. After harvest we sow a plant cover, made up of several different plants, which grows over the soil until the next crop is sown. This plant cover is not harvested. It stops weeds growing and also nourishes the soil. Finally, the third pillar is the diversity of species grown: we extend rotation length and vary the species sown in the plant cover as much as possible.
By combining production and protection, SCA meets the demands of both profitability and sustainability. Permanent plant cover boosts production of dry matter to nourish the soil, increases the soil’s capacity to store carbon and thereby reduces CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. SCA also reduces water erosion by protecting the soil’s natural porosity. This stops mudslides that lead to soil loss on to roads and into rivers. Inversely, traditional tillage methods damage organic matter. Permaculture follows the same principles as SCA but it is limited to small areas of one hectare maximum.
Organic farming, meanwhile, set out to address the question of chemical crop treatments by reducing them or even stopping them altogether. In my opinion, we should use chemicals appropriately. Organic farming should continue to exist but it also comes with costs and limits, particularly in terms of productivity and a lack of food safety controls. It is not appropriate for all surface areas. If it is climate change we are worried about then it is SCA we should be looking at.
© François Mandin