A Nature Sustainability study has shown that farmers could still produce high crop yield using much less artificial fertilizers as long as they follow environmentally sustainable practices. Such practices include adding manure and compost to soil, growing plants that fix nitrogen among crops, as well as cultivating different types of produce instead of the same crops in one area.
These practices help improve the natural ecosystems in farms and require much less artificial fertilizers, which have become more expensive following the war in Ukraine, the subsequent supply shortages, and the rise in fuel prices.
“Reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers would help to buffer farmers and consumers against economic shocks, such as the current spike in fertilizer costs and consequent increase in food prices,” ecologist Chloe MacLaren, who is the leading author of the paper, told The Guardian.
For the first time ever, the study analyzed 30 long-term experiments on European and African farms and looked at the ways natural farming could bring better yields. One of the findings was that sustainable farming methods did not bring higher crop yield when combined with high amounts of fertilizers. However, they brought the greatest yields when some nitrogen was added to the soils.
The study looked at more than 25,000 harvests of wheat, maize, oat, barley, sugar beet and potatoes for over nine years. Following long-term experiments was crucial for the study’s objectivity, the researchers said.
Animal manure was found to be more effective in boosting yields than plant-based compost or plant cuttings. Cultivating different crops suppressed weeds and diseases. And growing nitrogen-fixing plants such as beans and legumes helped improve soil fertility.
In addition to the rising production prices (which have in turn led to higher food prices), the extreme weather and the decreased food reserves due to the pandemic have all contributed to a global food crisis and a hunger catastrophe for millions of people in the developing world.
“Our results demonstrate that [ecological farming methods] could play an important role in the development of future sustainable farming systems,” MacLaren said. “There are undoubtedly benefits beyond just yield, such as reducing costs, reducing pollution, or providing other valuable farm products.”