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Nature-based farming maintains high yields while slashing fertiliser use, major study shows 

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Analysis of 30 long running farm experiments in Europe and Africa has shown how nature-based farming practices achieve high crop yields, while slashing chemical fertiliser use.

In the study, researchers at Rothamsted Research in the UK, used an approach more common in assessing drug trials, to methodically compare different farm practices that intentionally work with nature to boost yields and explored how they interact with fertiliser use and tillage practices.

The team looked at farm experiments that have been running for longer than nine years from across Europe and Africa – totalling 30 separate experiments and data from over 25,000 harvests.

Published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the report shows that low levels of fertiliser can produce high crop yields if supplemented by practices that support farmland ecosystems, such as growing a greater range of crops, growing plants such as beans or clover that enhance soil fertility, and adding organic matter in the form of manure, compost, or cuttings.

In contrast, using these practices along with high levels of chemical fertiliser didn’t generally increase yields further, and the highest experimental yields came when using a combination of what the study team call ‘ecological intensification’ practices, with some additional nitrogen.

The lead author says these findings show that adopting some, or all, of these approaches could help reduce and rebalance worldwide fertiliser use, a global imperative given spiralling prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

Dr Chloe MacLaren, Rothamsted Research, said: “Reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers would help to buffer farmers and consumers against economic shocks, such as the current spike in fertiliser costs and consequent increase in food prices.

“Widespread uptake of these practices could also contribute to a more equitable global distribution of fertiliser. Currently, average nitrogen fertiliser rates in Africa are a small fraction of those in Europe, with smallholders in particular using much less than their fair share.

“If fertiliser use is reduced where it is currently high, then fertiliser use could be increased where it is currently low – addressing food security issues without exceeding planetary boundaries.”

“Ecological intensification could help return agriculture into a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity”

The Rothamsted team also ecological intensification could help address the negative environmental impacts – water pollution, climate change emissions, and biodiversity loss that have resulted from high fertiliser use.

“Ecological intensification could help return agriculture into a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity,” said Dr MacLaren. “Our results demonstrate that it could play an important role in the development of future sustainable farming systems.”

REACTION – “Not ‘new news’, but timely and welcome – the world is catching up”

Roger Kerr, CEO of OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) told Natural Newsdesk:

“The Rothamsted Research findings evidence that fertiliser use can be cut without impairing yields, where farm practices that intentionally work with nature are introduced.

This is not ‘new news’ to the organic sector and it only goes to validate what organic producers have been advocating for years. I’m delighted the world is finally catching up. OF&G welcomes this research.

It seems timely that such evidence has come to light when it is anticipated that farmers will not continue to have ready access to synthetic fertilisers and crop protection products in the coming years. This new reality therefore requires a fundamental mindset change – we can’t continue as we are now.

The ‘surprising’ results of the research also don’t consider that today’s crop varieties have been on a continual breeding programme since the 1950’s to yield highest under high input cropping conditions. What would be possible were there to be significant investment in low input varieties? What the research shows me is that we are only scratching the surface of what is possible from organic systems with the right investment. 

“What the research shows me is that we are only scratching the surface of what is possible from organic systems with the right investment” 

The wider regenerative movement is also embracing the lower input approach, but it has its challenges as outlined in our recent policy paper. It points to 279 published articles on the subject showing numerous different approaches and practices being used to guide the interpretation of ‘regenerative’. 

Meanwhile, organic has distinct and legally binding production standards including the prohibition of artificial fertilisers and synthetic biocides, setting it very much in the mould of advanced regenerative farming with its known and quantified positive impacts on climate change and biodiversity loss. “

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