Conservation Agriculture: Facts and Fiction

By Christopher Neglia

Conservation agriculture (CA) introduces a series of new agricultural practices that enhance biological activities in soil so as to improve its fertility and create favourable conditions in which healthy plants can develop. CA is considered to be a climate smart approach that improves crop yields, reduces the impacts of climate shocks and mitigates the production of green house gases.

The concept of CA is based on the three principles:  minimum/reduced tillage operations, permanent organic soil cover; and crop rotation. Although CA has been promoted in more than 40 countries, its widespread adoption has been limited to only a few regions. Latin America has had the highest rate of CA adoption, particularly the countries in the Southern Cone of South America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

There has been considerable controversy regarding the potential of CA in Sub Saharan Africa, a region where adoption rates have generally been low. In a seminar held during the IFAD Learning Days, Stephen Twomlow, Regional Climate and Environment Specialist; and Robert Delve, Senior Technical Advisor Agronomy, explained why this is the case.

First, CA is generally introduced as a complete technological package, without first considering farmers’ primary problems and constraints. Since Sub Saharan Africa is extremely heterogeneous in terms of climate, farming systems and traditions, a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not appropriate.

Before deciding if CA is an appropriate solution, you have to define the issue you want to address:

Furthermore, farmers have run into problems with inputs– namely the lack of availability of machines and equipment, such as the direct/jab planter, which is a labour-saving tool used to insert a seed and fertilizer directly into the soil. While these are manufactured and available at relatively low-cost in Brazil, finding one in Africa is extremely rare.

Meanwhile, minimum tillage comes with a greater weed incidence. Brazilian farmers are among the largest users of herbicides and other agrochemicals to manage weeds, however in most parts of Africa, affordable access to herbicides remains low.

According to Twomlow and Delve, when promoting CA practices, we should also understand the number of labour hours needed for land preparation, planting, fertilizer application, weeding and harvest. This planning is critical because any increased labour burden is likely to fall on women, who are the main agricultural labourers in Sub Saharan Africa. For farming systems with low mechanization and few inputs, the labour costs associated with CA may simply be too great.

Currently, IFAD has a 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).

IFAD is also working with the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) to provide biophysical baseline at the landscape level, and a monitoring and evaluation framework for assessing processes of land degradation and the effectiveness of rehabilitation measures (recovery) over time.
Above all, this work should lead to a more realistic appraisal of CA scenarios. Through timely identification of constraints on the ground, we can propose interventions that are properly adjusted to the local farming system and environmental factors.