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Penn State study finds cover crops can mitigate climate change

Written by Rachel McDevitt | May 11, 2017 6:51 PM

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(Harrisburg) -- Cover crops, such as rye or buckwheat, have long been used as a way to keep nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion. Now new research from the Penn State College of Agriculture finds the crops can also play a role in mitigating climate change. 

Penn State professor of biogeochemistry Jason Kaye worked with a colleague in Spain to review the benefits of cover crops: they clean carbon dioxide from the air, reduce the amount of fertilizer needed, and reflect radiation from the sun back into the atmosphere. The researchers found those qualities make cover crops as effective at battling climate change as the popular no-till method of agriculture, which aims to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by minimizing disturbance to the soil. 

Kaye said they also found if cover crops were planted in every available field around the globe, they could mitigate 10 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. He calls that a modest impact. 

"I think about cover crops as being part of the portfolio of practices, an important one in the portfolio of practices that we might use in agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Kaye said, "But it's not going to solve the problem in one fell swoop."

Kaye said cover cropping is a practice on the rise, especially in places like Maryland, where it's incentivized. Fewer financial incentives in Pennsylvania have led to less adoption.

Kaye said the most important conclusion from his analysis is there appear to be few compromises between traditional benefits of cover cropping and the benefits for climate change.

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

The study's finding were published in a recent issue of Agronomy for Sustainable Development, the official journal of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.

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