New research has been published showing the environmental and economic benefits of planting legumes into agricultural systems. ‘Trade-offs between economic and environmental impacts of introducing legumes in cropping systems’ focusses on five case study regions in Europe finding that on average, cropping systems with legumes reduced nitrous oxide emissions between 18 and 33% and Nitrogen fertilizer use between 24 and 38% compared to systems without legumes. The researchers found that economic benefits of grain legumes reduced gross margins in 3 of 5 regions but forage legumes increased gross margins in 3 of 3 regions. However, this meant that in all regions legumes (whether grain or forage) increased environmental benefits.
Forage legumes were found to have a higher economic value as the prices of grain legumes are not competitive enough for European farmers. Yet, forage legumes are restricted to mixed farms that incorporate crop and livestock, whether that be within the farm itself or through collaboration with other farmers or farms that deliver green biomass to biogas plants. The specialization of farming and separation of livestock and crop production was cited as the major reason for the low proportion of forage legumes in Europe.
‘Farming specialization’ and monocultures are not the only methods of farming. There are numerous farmers such as Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin and Australia’s own Colin Seis who have practiced a more holistic method of farming; focussing on no till, variation of groundcover (including legumes and native grasses) and utilisation of livestock. The results that those three in particular have been achieving for years in terms of economic and environmental return have made their services highly sought after. The benefits of the ‘no till’ method common to all three has been extensively studied, a recent example is research from Italy titled ‘[s]oil carbon and nitrogen changes after 28 years of no-tillage management under Mediterranean conditions’ (peer reviewed but in press). The researchers found that when comparing long term no tillage and conventional tillage, after 28 years continuous no tillage increased soil organic carbon and total nitrogen in the 30 cm soil depth by 22% compared to initial values. This can be juxtaposed to continuous conventional tillage over the same period and soil depth that decreased soil organic carbon by 3% and total nitrogen by 5%.
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