Modern farming practices such as conservation tillage and no-till farming are responsible for significant environmental benefits often overlooked by Earth Day observers.

With no-till, farmers plant crops and control weeds without turning the soil. This method decreases erosion, reduces fuel use and improves water quality. In addition to the environmental benefits, no-till empowers farmers to grow more crops and feed more people than was possible 42 years ago when Earth Day first originated.

In the 1970s, a revolution in agriculture began when farmers started converting from conventional, intensive tillage systems to a system more in tune with nature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that soil erosion from U.S. cropland declined more than 40 percent between 1982 and 2007, thanks in part to no-till and conservation tillage practices. These modern farming practices were made possible in part by the use of atrazine, a herbicide that can manage many different types of weeds under a wide variety of conditions.

“Atrazine’s reliable performance gave farmers the confidence they could control weeds without tillage,” said Richard Fawcett, Ph.D., former agronomy professor at Iowa State University who is now an agricultural consultant.

No-till allows farmers to grow crops year after year without disturbing the soil, thus increasing the soil’s amount of organic matter and decreasing erosion, according to a study by Fawcett.

“While plowing has benefits, it leaves soil loosened and susceptible to significant erosion, ultimately polluting air with fuel burned in the plow equipment and contaminating water with sediment run-off,” said Fawcett. “No-till fields also provide a healthier habitat for wildlife.”

But this farming technique depends on the ability to control weeds, demonstrating the importance of the 50-year-old herbicide atrazine.

According to Paul D. Mitchell, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, more than one-third of U.S. cropland devoted to major crops such as corn and soybeans uses no-till systems. Farmers are applying atrazine on about half of no-till corn acres. Mitchell’s research also found atrazine enables farmers to save as much as 28-million gallons of diesel fuel per year, equaling more than 600-million pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Earth Day started as a campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“But many of the campaign elements ignore the environmentally friendly and earth-saving methods farmers use in their day-to-day operations,” said David C. Bridges, Ph.D., president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga. “It is important to recognize the role of farmers and modern agricultural technologies in protecting wildlife, saving habitats and keeping our waters clean.”