Key­hole surgery for the soil

A clever seed sewing sys­tem de­vel­oped by a Kiwi might just save the world, by en­sur­ing food se­cu­rity and min­imis­ing the car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere.

Element - - Business -

This is the Cross Slot No Tillage sys­tem, de­vel­oped here in New Zealand by Dr John Baker (pic­tured), who has a MAgr Sc in soil sci­ence and a PH.D in agri­cul­tural engi­neer­ing, and has tin­kered away on his in­ven­tion for 30 years.

Baker has a stark warn­ing for us if we continue down the path of tra­di­tional hor­ti­cul­ture, pre­dict­ing that if con­ven­tional plough­ing isn’t re­placed by low-dis­tur­bance no-tillage within 50 years there’ll be famine in large ar­eas of the world.

Baker says it’s im­per­a­tive that car­bon re­mains in the soil and is not lost into the at­mos­phere through plough­ing. He says stud­ies show that 15-20% of CO2 in the at­mos­phere comes from an­nual plough­ing around the world.

Car­bon is a vi­tal in­gre­di­ent of soil. Plants that we eat all con­tain car­bon. When they die they de­com­pose and earth­worms and other mi­crobes take the prod­ucts of de­com­po­si­tion, which are rich in car­bon, into the soil and keep them there.

“When the soil is ploughed it re­leases much of the car­bon back into the at­mos­phere. The long term re­sult is a re­duc­tion in soil or­ganic mat­ter, which in turn leads to soil ero­sion, dust storms and ul­ti­mately famine,” says Baker.

“Plough­ing takes away the food sources of mi­crobes that hold the soil to­gether. Or­ganic mat­ter also stores wa­ter and the loss of both de­creases the crop yields.”

From 30 years of re­search at Massey Univer­sity, Dr Baker de­cided there had to be a bet­ter way of sow­ing seeds. He re­searched and de­vel­oped Cross Slot No-Tillage drills which pen­e­trate through crop residue or veg­e­ta­tion on top of the ground and sow seed and fer­tiliser in dif­fer­ent bands at the same time. The Cross Slot process causes min­i­mal or low dis­tur­bance to the soil, traps the hu­mid­ity, pre­serves the mi­cro-or­gan­isms and soil life and largely pre­vents car­bon from es­cap­ing into the at­mos­phere. Fur­ther, by leav­ing the stub­ble and straw from the pre­vi­ous crop to de­com­pose on the sur­face of the ground, it helps se­quester new car­bon into the soil.

This year Dr Baker was nom­i­nated for the World Food Prize, which was an­nounced re­cently at the State Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton, and his nom­i­na­tion car­ries over to 2013.

He points out it’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant for the soil to gain and trap car­bon “if we’re to feed the 50 per cent ex­tra pop­u­la­tion in the world by the year 2050.”

“Only four per cent of the world’s sur­face has arable soil and we have to learn to farm it sus­tain­ably which we sim­ply haven’t been do­ing. That means no-tillage must re­place plough­ing as the main­stream food pro­duc­tion tech­nique.”

New Zealand farm­ers sow about one mil­lion hectares of new seeds each year.

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