Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Special Section: Supporting ecosystem services with conservation agricultural approaches

Enhancing ecosystem services with no-till

R. Lal 

Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, FAES/OARDC, School of Natural Resources, 2021 Coffey Road, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43201-1085, USA.


Ecosystem functions and services provided by soils depend on land use and management. The objective of this article is to review and synthesize relevant information on the impacts of no-till (NT) management of croplands on ecosystem functions and services. Sustainable management of soil through NT involves: (i) replacing what is removed, (ii) restoring what has been degraded, and (iii) minimizing on-site and off-site effects. Despite its merits, NT is adopted on merely ∼9% of the 1.5 billion ha of global arable land area. Soil's ecosystem services depend on the natural capital (soil organic matter and clay contents, soil depth and water retention capacity) and its management. Soil management in various agro-ecosystems to enhance food production has some trade-offs/disservices (i.e., decline in biodiversity, accelerated erosion and non-point source pollution), which must be minimized by further developing agricultural complexity to mimic natural ecosystems. However, adoption of NT accentuates many ecosystem services: carbon sequestration, biodiversity, elemental cycling, and resilience to natural and anthropogenic perturbations, all of which can affect food security. Links exist among diverse ecosystem services, such that managing one can adversely impact others. For example, increasing agronomic production can reduce biodiversity and deplete soil organic carbon (SOC), harvesting crop residues for cellulosic ethanol can reduce SOC, etc. Undervaluing ecosystem services can jeopardize finite soil resources and aggravate disservices. Adoption of recommended management practices can be promoted through payments for ecosystem services by a market-based approach so that risks of disservices and negative costs can be reduced either through direct economic incentives or as performance payments.

(Accepted December 11 2012)

(Online publication March 11 2013)

Key words

  • natural capital;
  • carbon sequestration;
  • nutrient cycling;
  • erosion control;
  • residues management;
  • biodiversity;
  • food security;
  • climate change


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