On the occasion of World Soil Day, a meeting was organised by CM Vocento together with AEPLA, ANSEMAT and AEACSV on the effectiveness of this practice and the European Green Pact.
Human influence on global warming is indisputable and the increase in the planet's temperature is a constant. According to the latest report published by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the level could exceed 2ºC from 2050, a figure set as a target in the Paris Agreement, unless there are deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. And in this fight, there is an agricultural practice that could be key as it protects the soil from erosion, improves its quality, favours biodiversity and, in general, preserves the natural resources of water and air, making production more efficient: Conservation Agriculture.
15% of the Spanish agricultural area uses Conservation Agriculture, with a growth of 60% in the last decade.
This was one of the main conclusions of the meeting organised by CMVocento together with AEPLA (Asociación Empresarial de Protección de las Plantas), ANSEMAT (Asociación Nacional de Maquinaria Agropecuaria y Espacios Verdes) and AEACSV (Asociación Española Agricultura de Conservación Suelos vivos) on the occasion of World Soil Day, which is celebrated every 5th December. Under the slogan "Conservation Agriculture and the European Green Pact", experts analysed how the practice of Conservation Agriculture has proved to be a more than effective alternative to mitigate climate change. This is reflected in a recent technical-scientific report prepared by PwC, with the collaboration of AEPLA and ANSEMAT, the scientific-technical advice of AEACSV and the sponsorship of Bayer.
"Conservation Agriculture is a sustainable agricultural production system that breaks with the paradigm that to plant a crop it is necessary to carry out tillage operations. It is basically based on three principles: the elimination of tillage; the maintenance of a vegetation cover on a soil surface - doing so on 30% of it prevents 90% of soil erosion in both arable crops (cereals, legumes and oilseeds) and woody crops (olive groves, fruit trees, citrus fruits, vines), and then a third condition applicable to extensive arable crops, which is the rotation and diversification of crops. By following these three points, we can achieve great benefits, not only environmental but also economic and social", explains Óscar Veroz, executive director of AEACSV.
There is a vital process that does not occur in conventional agriculture because of tillage. "This is the increase of carbon sequestration in the soil, we are talking about an average of around one tonne per hectare per year. We are carrying out various projects within the European Union's Life programme, such as the European Union's Life Agromitiga project, where in plots with Conservation Agriculture, both with direct sowing and with vegetation covers, we are observing increases in carbon sequestration of 13% compared to plots that are managed in a conventional manner", Veroz assures us. "We currently have an area of more than 2 million hectares under conservation agriculture and that means we are sequestering 9.9 million tonnes per year. This figure compensates for the CO2 emitted by 2 million vehicles running for a whole year," he sums up.
Advantages for the farmer
"If we analyse it from the farmer's point of view, it is a type of practice that has quite a few advantages," stresses Jordi Bargues, partner in charge of the Economics team at PwC in Spain. "The first advantage is that it saves time. Avoiding ploughing means less time out with the tractor and this means freer time, obviously for leisure, but also to be able to diversify agricultural income. Something that seems fundamental to us when trying to fix population in the territory is to diversify the sources of wealth from the countryside by combining it, for example, with sustainable tourism or beekeeping. The second virtue is the fuel savings derived from not going out with the tractor to farm. This reduction in fuel, another environmental benefit in addition to those mentioned by Óscar, represents a significant saving for the farmer, which is reflected in his annual accounts and improves the profitability of the farms. Moreover, as these crops retain more water, the average productivity of these lands is higher. So, from the farmer's point of view, it is a clear example of a business that makes the numbers work", he sums up.
This precisely explains the growth experienced in the implementation of Conservation Agriculture in recent years. "Right now approximately 15% of the Spanish agricultural surface is using this practice. In the last decade the growth rates have been very important, above 4.5% per year. This means that in the last 10 years we have increased the area cultivated with this type of technique by 60%. Looking to the future, we could potentially reach over 95%. How fast can we converge on that? It is difficult to make forecasts because it depends on many factors: regulation, political discourse and also the capacity that we as agents also have to convince these farmers because, although it is profitable for farmers, it is true that there are some cultural, training or information obstacles that mean that we still have a long way to go".
Currently there are already more than 100,000 people directly employed in Conservation Agriculture and 2.2 billion euros in direct contribution to GDP. It is also an economic activity that generates effects in other sectors, such as agricultural machinery, inputs, seeds, etc. The social contribution of Conservation Agriculture is also remarkable. "It has an impact on a fundamental issue such as the emptying of Spain. If from the farmers' point of view there is an improvement in profitability, from the social point of view there is a fundamental advantage which is the generation of employment in places where it is particularly interesting", Esteve points out.
And he is right, the challenge of revitalising rural and depopulated areas in a country like ours, where 25% of the land is at risk of abandonment, with more than 5 million hectares at risk of loss, is obvious. "This risk of land abandonment occurs for two reasons: either because the farm is not profitable, as it is not sufficiently productive, or because the soil is eroded, a very serious problem in Spain because it is a loss of value and heritage. Conservation Agriculture makes a very important contribution to these two aspects. It gives us more income for farmers and protects the soil, making it viable for the farm to be sustainable not next year or the year after, but in 15 or 20 years' time.
Key to the European Green Deal
Looking at all these advantages, it seems clear that Conservation Agriculture will be crucial to the EU's environmental strategies. "The European Green Pact is a very ambitious plan that aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Conservation Agriculture can play an important role in this, as it is a practice that contributes to this low-carbon, sustainable, zero-emission economy," Veroz recalls. Moreover, the experts point out that at the last COP26, Conservation Agriculture was already identified as a great opportunity not only to mitigate climate change, but also to reduce inputs. "The idea is to reduce the use of phytosanitary products by 50% and fertilisers by 20% by 2030. And there are already studies that show that Conservation Agriculture reduces the transport of pesticides by up to 60% and minimises the content of fertilisers such as nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff water," he adds.
Regarding input reduction targets, Carlos Palomar, director general of AEPLA, points out that "times in agriculture are not as short as in politics and you cannot change the situation from one day to the next. Chemical products, in this case herbicides, are fundamental for practices such as Conservation Agriculture". He recalled a study by PwC on the challenges facing Spanish agriculture, which stressed that policies have to be coherent. "You can't expect farmers to achieve a carbon sink without allowing them to use herbicides to do so and forcing them to use mechanical tillage and consume diesel because then they are failing to meet emission reduction targets.
A balance must be found in the use of technology. "Then there will be the rational use and efficient use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, which will of course involve innovation, precision farming, digitalisation.... This will allow us to do more with less, but we must not delude ourselves that this can be done without chemical products. The lower environmental impact is not linked to its origin (natural or synthetic) but to the characteristics of the product. For me this is fundamental because this is really how policies move forward, not by pitting Conservation Agriculture against organic farming or integrated farming.... You have to approach it in a holistic way," he says. Moreover, he adds, all plant protection products are evaluated and regulated by the European Food Safety Agency and by the Ministries of Health, Environment, Labour and Agriculture.
The reality is that nowadays the use of phytosanitary products is essential in Conservation Agriculture. "Thanks to the development of R&D, very respectful, more effective solutions have been achieved at an unbeatable cost, for example glyphosate. A broad-spectrum product that controls weeds at a very cheap price, with a single compound, that works in cold or hot weather and, in addition, eliminates them at the root... In fact, in the PwC study, farmers recognise that without this tool they would not really know how to carry out Conservation Agriculture and 30% would abandon it altogether. All the progress we have made would collapse without the corresponding tools. This is another important part when we were talking about policy and regulation, which should accompany innovation in this case Conservation Agriculture and not hinder it".
"Soil is the greatest asset that agriculture has everywhere in the world, and even more so in the European Union. Here we are looking to conserve land that has been in production for many more centuries and due to the climatic conditions, we have and the conventional way of working it has suffered erosion, leading to a significant loss of soil. But we must consider that the EU population must continue to feed itself, that in the coming years trade flows and the balance of trade will change. So even if we think that soil is gold, we must continue to increase yields. In fact, the latest FAO and OECD estimates for the next 10 years indicate that production gains must come from yields," explains Ignacio Ruiz, secretary general of ANSEMAT.
For this reason, he points to three axes for increasing production: yield, having more soil available or intensifying crops. "In the EU, the aim is to improve yields. This is where Conservation Agriculture has the most important role to play for consumers. The industry's obligation is to consider how to increase yields while at the same time improving quality, biodiversity, or the environment. And this is where the production sectors and technology come in," explains Ruiz. "Machinery is the link between all the other technologies and agriculture: developing specific machinery for new work procedures, such as direct sowing machinery," he adds. The machinery they are developing, which is at the cutting edge worldwide, is larger and heavier to save time and fuel. "It has a higher investment for the farmer, but in the long term it pays for itself more quickly", Ruiz points out and recalls that the Ministry of Agriculture provides subsidies that cover up to 30% of the investment".
So, are Spanish farmers prepared to take on this practice? Ignacio Ruiz believes that "the biggest fear of farmers is changes in regulations. With this PwC study, it has become very clear from a scientific point of view what the benefits are, that we are technologically prepared to produce products that are safe, that we have efficient machines? But these technologies also involve an increase in cost and these investments must be guaranteed".