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News Article

Cover crops and climate change


Could the use of cover crops help mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture?

Over the past few years, the use of cover crops has increased substantially, as farmers and land owners have recognised the benefits of planting cover crops, such as their ability to reduce erosion, improve soil health, reduce nitrogen leaching and fix atmospheric nitrogen.  However, cover crop management may also play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change on agriculture, according to a new study.

Professor Jason Kaye from Pennsylvania State University and Miguel Quemada from the Technical University in Madrid, studied the potential for cover crops to mitigate climate change by comparing all of the positive and negative impacts of cover crops on the net global warming potential of agricultural land.  They reviewed cover cropping initiatives in Pennsylvania, as well as central Spain.  Following this assessment, they surmised that lessons that had been learned from these contrasting regions showed that cover cropping was a strategy that would be viable in a warming world.

The researchers found that the effects of cover crops on greenhouse gas fluxes, could typically mitigate warming by ~100-150 grams of carbon per square meter per year and that this was comparable to and even higher than mitigation arising from other agricultural practices, such as the transition to no-till.

“Many people have been promoting no-till as a climate mitigation tool, so finding that cover crops are comparable to no-till means there is another valuable tool in the toolbox for agricultural climate mitigation,” said Kaye.

But how do cover crops mitigate climate change? The main methods by which cover crops mitigate climate change from greenhouse-gas fluxes are by increasing soil carbon sequestration while also reducing fertilizer use.  However, according to Kaye, the most significant finding may be “the surface albedo change, the proportion of energy from sunlight reflecting off of farm fields due to cover cropping” which Kaye explains “may mitigate 12 to 46 grams of carbon per square meter per year over a 100-year time horizon."

"Cover crop management also can enable climate-change adaptation at these case-study sites, especially through reduced vulnerability to erosion from extreme rain events, increased soil-water management options during droughts or periods of soil saturation, and retention of nitrogen mineralized due to warming," he said.

While there are some considerable benefits to the use of cover crop management, Kaye is not necessarily calling for cover crops to be used solely for the purposes of climate change mitigation or adaptation. Instead, he believes that an important conclusion from his research is that there appears to be very few compromises between the previously known benefits of cover cropping and the benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

"Farmers and policymakers can expect cover cropping simultaneously to benefit soil quality, water quality and climate-change adaptation and mitigation," said Kaye.

"Overall, we found very few trade-offs between cover cropping and climate-change mitigation and adaptation, suggesting that ecosystem services that are traditionally expected from cover cropping can be promoted synergistically with services related to climate change."

Further information on cover crops is available to subscribers of the Environmental Impact database.  By using the search string "cover crops" AND "climate change" yields over 200 records, while "cover crops" AND "soil conservation" AND erosion returns 219 results.  

Journal reference

Jason P. Kaye, Miguel Quemada. Using cover crops to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A reviewAgronomy for Sustainable Development, 2017; 37 (1) DOI: 10.1007/s13593-016-0410-x

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Stephanie Cole
  • Date
  • 19 April 2017
  • Source
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Subject(s)
  • Climate Change