According to European Green Deal, signed by the European Commission in 2019, the EU economy must be sustainable and climate neutral by 2050. To achieve this, an action plan has been established with a triple objective: promoting efficient use of resources, committing to the transition to a clean and circular economy, restore biodiversity and reduce pollution.
The new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post 2020 is built in line with these environmental goals and in coherence with European strategies in the field of agriculture and sustainability. To achieve the objectives established by the CAP, conservation agriculture (CA) is a key element. This agricultural practice provides multiple environmental, economic and social benefits. Its fundamental objective is to conserve, improve and make efficient use of natural resources.
In order to analyze and quantify the impact of conservation agriculture, PwC has prepared a technical-scientific report in collaboration with AEPLA (Business Association for Plant Protection) and Ansemat (National Association of Agricultural Machinery and Green Spaces). It also has the advice of the AEAACSV (Spanish Association of Living Soil Conservation Agriculture).
sustainable and profitable
Conservation agriculture is a respectful and efficient alternative with natural resources. It is based on the non-alteration of the agricultural soil through tillage actions, on preserving the permanent vegetal cover on the surface and on the rotation and/or diversification of crops. CA techniques are associated with a series of benefits that allow them to fulfill a double function: protect the environment —air, water, soil and biodiversity— and guarantee the economic viability of farms.
According to the PwC study, with the support of national and European institutions, more than three million hectares could be cultivated by 2030. Its maximum potential is 13 million hectares.
In Spain there are 2.1 million hectares cultivated with conservation agriculture, 15% of the total cultivated agricultural area. The production of these crops is 11.9 million tons, whose total value reaches 3,668 million euros, which represents 12% of national agricultural production.
The average annual growth rate of conservation agriculture in our country is 4.3%. According to the PwC study, with the support of national and European institutions —for example, with the inclusion of the AC in the CAP schemes— in 2030, more than three million hectares could be cultivated. The maximum potential of this agricultural technique is 13 million hectares, according to the report.
Less CO₂ emissions
As reflected in the PwC study, conservation agriculture contributes to air quality by avoiding the emission of 9.9 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) each year, valued at 245 million euros. Estimates indicate that 54.8 million tons could be reached in a maximum potential adoption scenario, equivalent to 1,360 million euros: it is calculated that each additional hectare managed under CA saves 4.7 tons of CO₂ and avoids issues worth 118 euros.
With conservation agriculture, no tillage activities are carried out, which allows the soil to store the carbon previously fixed by the crop thanks to photosynthesis. The reduction of CO₂ emissions occurs in two ways: avoiding disturbing the soil, which ensures that the previously fixed atmospheric CO₂ is not released again, and using less machinery, which achieves lower fuel consumption and, consequently, emissions associated with its combustion.
Water, soil and biodiversity
In the face of water and wind erosion, conservation agriculture is very beneficial. As revealed by the PWC study, it prevents the loss of almost 13 tons of soil per hectare per year compared to conventional agriculture, which represents an economic saving, in terms of depreciation avoided, of 157 million euros per year (76 euros per hectare), which could reach 811 million euros in a scenario of maximum potential adoption.
Likewise, the adoption of conservation agriculture is associated with an increase in biodiversity. The number of living beings that inhabit the soil, which contribute both to its formation and its fertility, can be multiplied between 2 and 7.5 times more with CA compared to conventional agriculture.
More profitable and less laborious farms
On the business side, conservation agriculture enjoys a good position. It is associated with lower costs and shorter work times, which increases the combined annual income of farmers by 135 million euros. The figure assumes that each additional hectare under CA practice has an economic benefit of 66 euros. The potential profitability of farms in the maximum adoption scenario is 932 million euros, according to the PwC study.
In addition, conservation agriculture allows savings in labor costs compared to conventional tillage. Currently there are nine million hours a year saved with AC. The calculations establish that for each additional hectare, four hours of work are saved, so if conservation agriculture reached the maximum predicted, 53 million hours would be avoided.
Direct seeding machines and herbicides: the essential tools of CA
To implement conservation agriculture, it is necessary to use the appropriate machinery and appropriate phytosanitary products. Direct seeding seeders are essential. By not tilling, they also do not cause disturbance in the soil and allow the stubble to remain between the harvest; At the same time, the use of this type of machine means cost savings and increased productivity for the farmer.
Another of the necessary tools to carry out conservation agriculture techniques, whose practice improves the physical-chemical properties of the soil, are phytosanitary products such as herbicides. Glyphosate is one of the most widely used to control weeds and protect soil nutrients. 25% of agricultural production in Spain uses this product at some point during the crop. The cost of alternatives to glyphosate is 4.3 times higher in arable crops and 1.9 in permanent crops. In this way, if farmers dispensed with this phytosanitary product, their variable costs would increase by an average of 9% and their production would be affected by an average of -10%.