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  • Writer's pictureDoug Hull

Ploughing through

The humble plough. Symbol of man's evolution from cave dweller to master of the land. Associated (in my mind anyway) with imagery of fertile lands boasting darkly rich soil, lush fields bursting with buxom crops, and wizened farmers surveying their land with a satisfied grin. But is this really the case? And could the days of the plough be numbered?

So let's start by 'digging in' (sorry!) to what ploughing actually means. Ploughing is the act of churning up the top layer of soil in a field in order to bring fresh nutrients to the surface, to allow water to penetrate, and to break up hard, compacted soil in readiness for planting crops. The practise of scratch ploughing (manual ploughing by hand using bent sticks) dates back over 4000 years, but it was the ancient Egyptians who were the first to use animals to draw ploughing contraptions through the fields. The Greeks, Chinese and then the Romans all developed ploughing technology further and efficiency levels increased drastically, allowing early farmers to grow crops on an ever larger scale. These days farmers generally use carbon-farting-tractor drawn ploughs that most of us will have seen at some stage in our lives (hmmm, electric tractor anyone?).

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that ploughing may not be a good thing, so what are the issues with it? Well firstly, from a climate change perspective, the act of turning the soil has been found to release trapped carbon which is then converted into CO2 by microbes in the soil and released into the atmosphere. It also rips up any existing plants which then rot when they come into contact with air, releasing more CO2. Carbon-farting soil if you will. But it's not just bad from a carbon emissions perspective, ploughing also increases the impact of wind and water erosion on the soil, and has been shown to be very disruptive to the microorganisms that live there, thus adversely affecting soil health, and reducing crop yields.

Many farmers are starting to move away from ploughing and tilling, and are adopting no-till technology, where seeds are inserted directly into the soil with minimal disruption, and any leftover organic material from previous harvests is left on the ground to effectively act as mulch, which helps the soil retain moisture and improves fertility. No-till farming has been shown to reduce carbon emissions by up to a third, and improve soil health by retaining that carbon. Healthy fertile soil contains high levels of carbon, which, lest we forget, is still the key building block for all organic life. No-till technology sounds like a massive win-win strategy - not only for reducing carbon emissions, but also for improving soil health, which in a world of 7.9 billion hungry people is kind of important!

Now I am no farmer, (with the exception of my flourishing worm farm at home which I am particularly proud of!) so please take what I write here with a pinch of glyphosate. Nevertheless it seems very clear that farming methods need to evolve on a global scale and quickly if we are to win (or at least compete in) the climate-change war. As always, it is the large scale industrial farming organisations (Big Farma?) that hold the most power - and they would only change if the economics make sense. Perhaps the best course of action is for all of us to support the smaller, local farmers a bit more - especially if they are making an effort to reduce their carbon footprint by not ploughing the soil.

Until next time!


aka The Regeneralist

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