Kill the Plough, Save Our Soils

No-till farming could increase farm yield and ease climate change-- but there's a catch. Above, a tractor plows a field in Germany. Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty

Will Scale is standing on the western edge of Britain, in a field, with a handful of worms. "Look at that," he says, crumbling fine, cocoa-colored soil between his fingers. "Dark, friable and full of life. That's pretty amazing." The tip of a vast worm emerges from the earth and wriggles indignantly as Scale upends the clod. "Here," he says, pointing to the little cavities pocking the soil's surface. "Look at all those holes. That's a great sign of health."

Scale's fields look a bit unusual. Instead of earth ploughed into peaks, there's just a thick layer of old plant matter and a sharp, deep cut in the earth, a narrow drill just wide enough to admit the seed. "Nature's way is always to cover the soil, and this is just modeling a cropping system on a natural system."

By contrast, over on the opposite slope is one of his neighbor's fields, perfectly rippled with clean green lines of barley. The rows track the hill as if they've been laid down by mathematicians. Scale looks at his neighbor's field and then down at his. "The trouble with no-till," he says, "is that it always looks so scruffy." He sounds a little self-conscious.

Scale, 36, is working his parents' 350-acre farm Great Nash, near Fishguard, Wales. He's helped along by a Nuffield Farming Scholarship (awarded to innovators for over 60 years now) and a fierce desire to do things a different way. Before he took over the farm, he did a lot of traveling—North and South America, the Middle East. What he saw there convinced him that he needed to come back to Wales and completely change the way he worked the land.

Soil Blown to Dust

Over the past six months or so, Europe got a little bit smaller. Months of winter rain filled aquifers to the point of overflowing, leaving water to course down uncovered furrows, taking a lot of the continent's soil along with it. On flatlands, fields became lakes as rain pooled in the ridges, unable to drain through the compacted soil. Satellite images of Britain, Germany and France showed rivers red with sediment and estuaries bleeding soil into the sea. In England, it was estimated that 2,000 tons of topsoil slipped into the river Wye during a single rainstorm. And once that soil was gone, it was gone for good, silting up the seabed and exposing the old bony rock beneath Europe's soft topside.

Governments can't afford to ignore the problem much longer. Recent Europe-wide estimates have suggested that the cost of regular flooding will reach $32.21 billion a year. To many, the solution is to build better flood defenses, plant more trees or dredge the rivers. But a growing number of farmers see a more basic solution: Get rid of the plough. They want to overturn the hallowed tradition of the perfect furrow and go "no-till."

In no-till farming, instead of ploughing up the leftovers of last year's harvest, seed is drilled directly into the ground and left to get on with doing what it does best under a warm, binding mulch of old crop waste. Advocates say that because the earth is left largely undisturbed, it's better able to absorb rain and withstand erosion.

In both North and South America and in Australia, no-till is huge. It initially evolved in the 1930s and '40s as an emergency response to the worst drought in U.S. history. At first, the immigrant farmers in the Midwest applied the same farming techniques they'd always used back home in Europe to the poorer, drier soils of the Great Plains states. But what had worked for thousands of years in the Old World proved disastrous in the New. Untethered by root growth and exposed to the four winds, the soil got blown to dust, forcing half a million people to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

By 1935, it was estimated that 850 million tons of topsoil had been blown off the Great Plains in a single year and that 100 million acres of arable farmland had lost most or all of its soil. By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1935, and brought much of the area under government control, it was calculated that 75 percent of the U.S. had been affected, and the Black Blizzards had begun to blow over Capitol Hill itself.

Roosevelt's New Deal measures helped stabilize the free fall, but the drought had taught a hard lesson. If they didn't want to lose any more farmland in America, farmers realized they had to get rid of the plough.

It worked. Cropland erosion dropped by 43 percent between 1982 and 2003, and today the U.S. has 62.5 million acres under no-till. Other countries with similarly arid climates—Australia, much of South America—have taken to no-till with equal enthusiasm. Between them, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay together have over 70 percent of their arable land under no-till; Argentina alone has 45.1 million acres. But in countries in wetter climes—like most of Northern Europe—no-till remains marginal.

A flooded farm in Fordgate, Somerset, Great Britain, Feb. 2014. Peter Marlow/Magnum

There's Just One Thing

Because the earth is left largely undisturbed in no-till, it's better able to absorb rain and withstand erosion. In addition, ploughing releases carbon, while undisturbed soil keeps it locked in—and less carbon in the air could potentially slow climate change. Left alone, soil can rebalance itself, becoming richer, healthier and more nourishing in the process—hence all those worms. With stronger soil, you get bigger yields and better crops, which means a better chance of feeding all the seven-point-something billion of us humans.

All of which sounds wonderfully eco-friendly. But there's a catch: It can take a lot of herbicides to make this system work. Which is why the organic movement—the so-called "deep greens"—are wary of it.

Traditionally, the arable farmer has fought against two enemies: weather and weeds. He has three ways of getting rid of the plants he doesn't want: He ploughs them to death, shades them out with other plants or uses herbicides. The most popular agricultural herbicide is glyphosate, often marketed under the trade name Roundup. Roundup is produced by the agrochemical company Monsanto, and Monsanto is to environmentalists what Voldemort was to Harry Potter.

Monsanto says Roundup is not only safe but "has favorable environmental characteristics." Since the exact formula of Roundup remains a trade secret, full independent testing has been tricky, but a French study in 2009 claimed that one of Roundup's inert ingredients was capable of damaging or killing placental and embryonic cells, thus increasing the potential risk of birth defects.

In the U.S., Monsanto has also produced a range of genetically modified crops known as "Roundup-Ready": weeds die, but crops keep on thriving. Which means farmers remain corralled within the corporate loop: they buy and plant Roundup-Ready seeds, they spray them with Roundup, they get their weed-free crop, and then they start all over again.

The problem is that some weeds in the U.S. are now becoming resistant to Roundup, forcing farmers to use more of it or use it with other herbicides—older, more infamous compounds such as 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, originally developed in the U.K. during World War II as an agent of chemical warfare and later used as an ingredient in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War.

Good or Evil

When asked about Roundup, Scale sounds exasperated. "You keep asking about herbicide, don't you? Everyone's got this assumption that fertilizers and pesticides are terrible. But is Monsanto really the Evil Empire? You could argue that they've done more to actually feed the world and to provide cheap consistent food with better yields than almost anyone or anything else."

Mark Buckingham, the company's U.K. spokesman, says many farmers use Roundup because "it's such a good product. It enables huge energy and water savings, and potentially it increases yields. There are NGOs in Europe dedicated to eliminating glyphosate, and consumers really aren't benefited by this irrational fear of pesticides."

So is Roundup completely safe? "It depends what you mean by 'safe,'" Buckingham says. "Is table salt safe? Is water safe? There is no perfect system, but glyphosate has a 40-year record of safe use as long as it's applied properly."

One of Scale's fields had been a hay meadow for 70 years. Last year he cut the grass, sprayed it with Roundup and planted canola. Hay wasn't profitable, canola is. He realized long ago that if he wanted to convert others—including his father, who farms with him—he was going to have to revolutionize through example. And, hopefully, through profit.

"We all use anti-dandruff shampoo—that's a fungicide, and no one complains about that," he says. "I don't know a single modern case of anyone who's been damaged by herbicides." The reason farmers are so insistent about herbicides is simple: They work.

"There's always a payoff," Scale continues. "That's how it works with everything; everything damages something. If you till, then the plough damages the soil. If you spray, then maybe it's damaging something. If you're organic, then you don't use sprays, but you get lower yields. It's exactly the same trade."

He turns and walks on, stiff-backed. What he's trying to make me understand is that there is no good or evil here, only an ambiguous and very human system. "Here." He stops again and points at a Roundup-dodging weed rising up through the mulch. "No-till isn't perfect, but it works. And it's surely a damn sight better than farming a load of stones."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Monsanto has "terminator seeds" on the market. They do not.