Advantages of Conservation Agriculture

Conservation agriculture is generally a "win-win" situation for both farmers and the environment. Yet many people intimately involved with worldwide food production have been slow to recognize its many advantages although with time it is now considered as a viable alternative to conventional agricultural practices that are having obvious negative impact on the environment and degrading the soil. Much of this has to do with the fact that conservation agriculture requires a new way of thinking about agricultural production in order to understand how one could possibly attain higher yields with less labor, water, and fewer chemical inputs. In spite of these challenges, conservation agriculture is spreading to farmers throughout the world as its benefits become more widely recognized by farmers, researchers, scientists and extensionists alike. It was estimated that in 2018-2019 that 205.4 Mha was grown using CA globally or 14.7% of the total global cropland (Kassam, et al., 2022)

Specifically, conservation agriculture (CA) increases the productivity of:

  • Land - Conservation agriculture improves soil health (physical, chemical, and biological properties) while protecting the soil against erosion and nutrient losses by maintaining a permanent soil cover and minimizing soil disturbance. Furthermore, CA practices enhance soil organic matter (SOM) levels and nutrient availability by utilizing the previous crop residues or growing of green manure/cover crops (GMCC's) and keeping these residues as a surface mulch rather than burning. Thus, arable land under CA is more productive and sustainable over time.
  • Labor - Because land under no-till is not cleared before planting and involves less weeding and pest problems following the establishment of permanent soil cover/crop rotations, farmers in Ghana reported a 22% savings in labor associated with maize production. Similar reductions in labor requirements have been reported with no-till rice-wheat systems in South Asia and various CA technologies in South America. Much of the reduced labor comes from the absence of tillage operations under CA, which use up valuable labor days during the planting season.
  • Water - Conservation agriculture requires significantly less water use due to increased infiltration (root channels and the soil pore system is not damaged, and compaction and formation of plough pans is less) and enhanced water holding capacity occurs because of the crop residues left on the soil surface and increased soil organic matter. Mulches also protect the soil surface from extreme temperatures and greatly reduce surface evaporation, which is particularly important in tropical and sub-tropical climates. In Sub-Saharan Africa, as with other dryland regions, the benefits of conservation agriculture are most salient during drought years, when the risk of total crop failure
  • Nutrients - Soil nutrient supplies and cycling are enhanced by the biochemical decomposition of organic crop residues at the soil surface that are also vital for feeding the soil microbes that are involved in nutrient cycling. While much of the nitrogen needs of primary food crops can be achieved by planting nitrogen-fixing legume species, other plant essential nutrients often must be supplemented by additional chemical and/or organic fertilizer inputs. In general, soil fertility is built up over time under conservation agriculture because of increased organic matter, and fewer fertilizer amendments are required to achieve optimal yields over time.
  • Soil biota - Insect pests and other disease-causing organisms are held in check by an abundant and diverse community of beneficial soil organisms, including predatory wasps, spiders, nematodes, springtails, mites and beneficial bacteria and fungi, among other biological species. Furthermore, the burrowing activity of earthworms and other fauna create tiny channels or pores in the soil that facilitate the exchange of water and gases and loosen the soil for enhanced root penetration.
  • Economic benefits - Farmers using CA technologies typically report higher yields with fewer water, fertilizer, energy, and labor inputs, thereby resulting in higher overall farm profits. The economic benefits of NT and other conservation agriculture technologies, more than any other factor, has led to adoption among both large- and small-scale farmers throughout the world once they see for themselves the benefits of adopting CA technology and overcome their mind-sets for traditional tillage systems.
  • Environmental benefits - Conservation agriculture results in a more environmentally friendly set of benefits. Because it uses resources more efficiently than conventional agriculture, these resources become available for other uses, including conserving them for future generations. The significant reduction in fossil fuel use under no-till agriculture results in fewer greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and less impact on climate change. Reduced applications of agrochemicals under CA also significantly lessens pollution levels in air, soil, and water. Keeping the residues from the previous crop on the soil surface and not burning them also results in cleaner air and less loss of biodiversity.  
  • Equity considerations -Conservation agriculture also has the benefit of being applicable to many small-scale farmers who need to obtain the highest possible yields with limited land area and inputs. Perhaps the biggest obstacle thus far for the technology spreading to more small-scale farmers worldwide has been limited access in certain areas to certain specialized equipment and machinery, such as no-till planters. This problem can be remedied by available service providers renting equipment or undertaking conservation agriculture operations for farmers who would not otherwise have access to the needed equipment. Local agricultural equipment companies in developing countries have been successful in adapting seed drills to be no-till drills with the most successful ones interacting with innovative local farmers. Transfer of CA knowledge and allowing innovative smallholder farmers to experiment with suitable equipment also has accelerated adoption rates. Formulating policies that promote adoption of CA are also needed. As more and more smallholder farmers gain access to CA technologies, the system becomes much more "scale neutral." 
  • Active role for farmers - As with any new agricultural technology, CA methods are most effective when used with skillful management and careful consideration of the many agro-ecological factors affecting production on any given farm or field. Rather than being a fixed technology to be adopted in blueprint-like fashion, CA should be seen as a set of sound agricultural principles and practices that can be applied either individually or together, based on resource availability and other factors. For this reason, farmers are encouraged to experiment with the methods and to evaluate the results for themselves - not just to "adopt" CA technologies. Selecting among different cover crop species,for example, needs to be determined in relation to particular agroecological conditions of the farm, including soil type, climate, topography as well as seed availability and what the primary function of the GMCC will be. Similarly, planting distances, irrigation requirements and the use of agrochemicals to control weeds and pests among other considerations, must be decided based on what the farmer needs as well as the availability of these and other resources. 


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