Conservation Agriculture: Overcoming the challenges to adoption and scaling-up

Written by: Larissa Setaro

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is increasingly referred to as a climate-smart technology based on the three principles of minimum soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover and crop rotation. Yet there are still unanswered questions about its double role in sustainable agricultural intensification and climate change adaptation.

On 13 and 14 January, IFAD hosted a learning event on CA, with the aim of addressing the existing challenges to adoption and scaling-up, and to learn from experience. IFAD has a large portfolio of programmes implementing CA with the support of research centres such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD), and NGOs such as Total Land Care (TLC). The event brought together CA experts from the different research centres and NGOs, who engaged in the debate from different angles, reporting on their expertise on the subject matter and their experience from the field.   

Targeting of CA interventions: Need for flexibility
The discussions held over the two days stressed the need to clarify that CA is within the bigger box of good agricultural practices (GAPs), rather than something separate. Starting from this conceptual definition, the field experiences reported in the seminar reflected the need for well targeted CA interventions if we want to obtain higher adoption and scaling-up rates. In the design phase, different factors must be taken into account to shape the appropriate CA option:
  • Farming systems, which are intimately linked to the specific agro-ecology (e.g. rainfall distribution, soil type, temperature) and in which the CA option should fit 
  • Farmers and their livelihoods (e.g. farm size, income, resource endowment) – the CA option should suit the adopter of the technology
  • Entry points at the farm and community level (e.g. farm labour, water scarcity, erosion) on which the programme should have an impact
  • Contextual factors (e.g. policy, extension services, markets) in which the whole intervention is embedded. 
Building upon these factors, interventions must not be seen as a fixed package composed of the three principles of CA noted above. Rather, these principles should provide guidance, but may be combined, modified and adapted within the context of the good agricultural practices, in order to optimize the CA option in the targeted areas. This approach calls for greater flexibility and creativity during the design of CA interventions. In addition, it requires capacity building for extension services and farmers.

CA is no silver bullet solution, as many speakers at the learning event said, and with the knowledge we have, we are able to black out areas in which CA must not be recommended, or at least be carefully reflected as an option – specifically, areas with high rainfall and heavy clay soils.

Immediate and delayed impacts
When adopting CA, farmers immediately perceive a reduction of labour requirements because certain agricultural operations, such as land preparation, are eliminated. This has a potential impact on women's workload, giving them the opportunity to dedicate more time to diversifying their income activities. However, as Claire Bishop (Gender and social inclusion specialist, IFAD) explained, workload and gender issues must be further investigated to understand how labour peaks change and which member of the household will be affected.

The result of soil cover is observed from day one in increased soil moisture and water infiltration, which is crucial in areas of low rainfall. Yet yield impacts are inconsistent among field experiments. Different claims are made on how long a farmer should wait to see yield benefits, from one year to more than ten years, so land tenure issues must be carefully taken into consideration. However, we must define what we are expecting from CA: increased yields or stable yields? Evidence shows that in dry spells CA can deliver a yield, unlike conventional agriculture, which can experience an entire seasonal failure.

Herbicide and mechanization: Can farmers afford CA?
CA has proved effective in high input systems. However, can smallholder farmers do the same? Yes, but not under the same conditions (e.g. high rate of fertilizer and expensive machinery cannot be proposed to smallholder farmers that farm on 0.1 ha land and live on less than 1 $ per day). Here again, flexibility and adaptability are required for the options proposed to smallholder farmers.  Opportunities for small mechanization in CA systems exist, and depend on the creation of  profitable systems such as a multi-purpose mechanisation (e.g., for transport, shelling operations and water pumping), supported by suited input/output business models. In addition, in the discussion was mentioned that in areas where farmers are already selling their services to others using animal traction, and it becomes easier for them to shift into mechanization business. In sub-Saharan Africa, CA systems are easier and more profitable when herbicide is used. However, unless this is provided or subsidized, farmers often cannot afford herbicide, and weed incidence increases, requiring more labour. In these cases, alternative affordable options should be considered for farmers.

Locally made tool-bar-based seeder.
©CIMMYT/ Fred Baudron

Learn from experience
The event aimed at drawing lessons from field experiences in order to address IFAD's next steps in  implementing CA. The points raised over the two days helped to clarify the path towards which IFAD should continue and key issues to keep in mind for CA interventions.

When it comes to CA, many factors will influence its adoption, and those factors are all interlinked. Field evidence has proven the impact of CA, but adaptive and participatory research is required. CA options proposed to farmers need to prove their feasibility, viability and profitability, besides minimising farmers' risk and assisting their adoption. For sure, IFAD must learn from the past in order to implement more carefully targeted interventions, which have higher adoptability potential. In addition, the scaling-up process needs to be facilitated by institutions and policies aligned towards the same objective, together with high-quality extension services and functioning markets.