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Day 4 – Conservation Agriculture Needs an Enabling Environment

Posted by Jeffrey A Brez Thursday, July 14, 2011

After a dinner reception hosted by the mayor of the municipality of Pato Branco on Tuesday evening, the workshop resumed Wednesday morning slightly later than usual. We travelled to Coronel Vivida to learn about microcredit opportunities for smallholder farmers in the state of Paraná, after which we had a chance to visit an idyllic and successful organic family farm outside the town (fish pond surrounded by indigenous fruit trees, pasture up the hill and beyhond that sugar cane).

(The below ppt was delivered on Day 3, and has great background on conservation agriculture and cover crops)

Thirteen years ago Adir Lino (at left) completed his farm's transition into organic production. He chose organic farming because he could not make ends meet with conventional (chemical / input intensive) farming of soybeans and noticed negative health effects on his family. Today his farm has high levels of diversity, and all of the production is integrated into one system (the meat and honey production is not fully organic). This, Adir says, has been the key for success. For the Paraná region the farm is relatively small – a total of 17 hectares, half of which is under cultivation while the other half is kept as a reserve forest (more than the federally mandated 20%).

The farm uses only family labour, with Adir, his wife and his parents working together . And it sounds like there might be quite a bit of work to do with all the different products of the farm: sugar cane, corn, beans, rice, fruits integrated in the agroforestry system, cassava, vegetables, honey, fish, poultry, dairy… You name it! Where possible, the production is organic, and minimum tillage and cover crops such as black oat, ryegrass and radish are used. In addition, agroprocessing is being done at the farm to further add value to the products, which are then sold to Brazil’s school feeding programme, in regional markets, and to customers directly at the farm.

Today, Adir’s family farm is a shining example of what can be achieved through using diversified and integrated farming systems. As workshop participant August Basson, from Lesotho, put it, Adir’s farm is something of a paradise. The question remains as to how these practices can be adapted to the realities of African smallholder farms.

Parana State has seen incredible yield and productivity increases since 1992 thanks to conservation agriculture, but other things have changed, too.

As Dr. Ricardo Ralisch of EMBRAPA and University of Londrina and Danilo Rheinheimer dos Santos of FEPAGRO (Rio Grande Do Sul) tell it, in the 1980s no-till was increasing for big farmers and mechanized (tractor-powered) farms, but smallholders were not in the picture at scale. During this time the research institutes (EMBRAPA, IAPAR, universities) were learning about conservation agriculture to help farmers become more efficient and smallholders more productive. The turning point for smallholders was the introduction of animal traction tools for conservation agriculture, which IAPAR designed. With financing from Monsanto and Semeato, the first 36 prototype animal traction planters, “gralha azuls,” were produced in 1985. They were provided to the extension agency EMATER, who then worked with smallholder farmers, IAPAR and others to introduce conservation agriculture through countless field demonstrations.

Conservation agriculture helped the struggling smallholders who previously produced only grain or cash crops, to develop integrated crop-livestock systems. Now Parana state is a major producer of dairy products, powered by smallholder production.
In 1992, the conservation agriculture federation FEBRADPDP was founded and the revolution was in motion.

During the 1990’s some government support for small farmer programmes came in the form of loans through PRONAF to cooperative investments for agro-processing and storage systems. Work also continued on improving infrastructure including rural roads for market access.

As incomes steadily grew, smallholder communities became more organized and asked municipal leaders and politicians for stronger support. In the 2000s, government investment in smallholders increased through beefed up credit programmes through PRONAF and the creation of a new Ministry for Agrarian Development, which implemented policies and programmes specifically targeting smallholders. One key policy now regulates market for smallholders and includes a programme of direct buying from small farmers by municipalities – each municipality must purchase at least 30% of food it supplies to schools, welfare programmes and military needs from small farms.

Adir Lino accessed credit from PRONAF to buy his agroprocessing equipment (a 5 year group loan at 1.2%/yr interest) and also sells his produce to the municipality, among others. Clearly, his family's success is the result of organic and conservation agriculture approaches together with a strong enabling environment.

Reporting by Jeff Brez and Waltteri Katajamaki


  1. Dear Jeff and colleagues, interesting seminar – it seems also an exciting experience. And excellent blog. Now, I have two questions (actually I do have many, but will try to refrain myself :-).

    One on certification schemes. Does Brazil (Federal Govt or individual States) apply any certification system for conservation agriculture? Or is any independent scheme being used?

    And then, another one on GM. There is an interesting (and hot) debate on the possible contribution of genetically modified crops to the world’s food needs, in a sustainable way (less pesticides, less water), but what about risks to health, environment, gene flow? Possibly part of the CA crops in Brazil (and elsewhere) are GM – interested in learning the point of view of participants on this issue.

    Jesús Quintana, Env & CC Specialist, IFAD

  2. @Jesús

    Thank you for following us and for your questions. I have consulted with FEBRAPDP and IAPAR and EMBRAPA and with the participants and here are your responses.

    On certification: there is not yet a certifiction system and there are no official guidelines for CA in Brazil but there are 2 initiatives underway to create one. Nationally there is a partnership between FEBRAPDP (CA federation) and ITAIPU (electricity operator)to develop 6 indicators based on the 3 principles of CA (minimum soil disturbance/direct crop planting, crop rotation / crop diversity, mulching/cover crops for permanent soil cover) that will allow for farms to be graded on their application of CA and also serve as MRV for carbon sequestration.

    Internationally, there is a RoundTable for Responsible Soybeans (RTRS) for which WWF is one sponsor and in Brazil, the Cerrado No-Till Farmers Asssociation is a national partner. On 23-2 Aug there will be a national CA event in Brazil – www.spd.agr.br to learn more.

    On GMO, in Brazil it is much more prevalent on large scale commercial farms than on smallholder farms. If you look at 5 of the major smallholder crops in Parana State soybean is practically 100% GMO, while maize is 10-15% GMO, and beans 0% GMO (GMO beans not available, but 1 variety is being considered now nationally), and peanuts and cassava are at 0%. Cotton, soybeans and maize are the 3 current commercial options for GMOs in Brazil. So GMOs are not playing a “starring role” in the huge productivity increases seen among the small farms here. What is bringing increased yields and incomes is diversification of crops, introduction of crop livestock systems and agro-processing on or closer to the farm (in the context of CA and the enabling environment).

    The general personal feeling among some participants is that clearly GMOs increase productivity (pest and disease control, freeing up labor, etc.) and are potentially important for food security in that sense, but should be used intelligently and cautiously, case by case, as one technology to improve livelihoods. Regarding the potential risks, more research should be done, all felt, to better understand the effects and impacts. One participant felt that most resistance to GMOs was essentially a trade and not a public health or other issue. Another said “you can’t stop a river.” Another felt that GMOs should be a last resort, used only after better understood technologies and methods that also increase yields dramatically have been exhausted.

    EMBRAPA have developed but not commercialized GMO beans, potatoes, papaya, soybeans and sugarcane. They avoid national high genetic diversity crops like cassava and peanuts, to avoid putting at risk the genetic diversity that exists in Brazil for these crops / species (although there is GMO cassava right across the border in Colombia). The National Biosafety Committee leads on these issues.