Understanding Conservation Agriculture

Intensive crop production has depleted soils to the extent that approximately one-third of the planet’s soils are degraded hence future production of food is jeopardized and this consequently has its effect on food security. Understanding the impact of conservation agriculture is beneficial for future activities affecting the production and protection of crops.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, “Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that can prevent the losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands. It promotes maintenance of a permanent soil cover, minimum soil tillage and diversification of plant species. It enhances bio-diversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, which contribute to increased water and nutrient use efficiency and to improved and sustained crop production.”

Also, Conservation Agriculture entails a set of soil management practices that minimize the disruption of the soil's structure, composition and natural biodiversity. Despite high variability in the types of crops grown and specific management regimes, all forms of conservation agriculture share three core principles. These include:

Minimum Mechanical Soil Disturbance through no tillage (just enough to get the seed into the ground thus this reduces soil erosion and preserves soil organic matters);

Maintenance of permanent or semi-permanent soil cover (using either a previous crop residue or specifically growing a cover crop to suppress weeds, protect the soil from the impact of extreme weather patterns and also help to preserve soil moisture.);

Regular Crop Rotations to help combat the various biotic constraints. A well-defined crop rotation promotes good soil structure, fosters a diverse range of soil flora and fauna that contributes to nutrient re-cycling and improved plant nutrition and helps to prevent pests and diseases.

Conservation agriculture is largely the product of the collective efforts of a number of previous agricultural movements, including no-till agriculture, agroforestry, green manures/cover crops, direct planting/seeding, integrated pest management, and conservation tillage among many others. Yet CA is distinct from each of these so-called agricultural packages, even as it draws upon many of their core principles. This is because CA uses many of the available technologies in unison, resulting in something many believe to be much greater than the "sum of its parts."

Advantages of Conservation Agriculture: Conservation agriculture as a system of farming has its inherent benefit. It 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 and consider it to be a viable alternative to conventional agricultural practices that are having obvious negative impact on the environment. 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, less 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.

Specifically, conservation agriculture (CA) increases the efficiency of the following factors:

1.      Land – Improvement of the soil structure and protecting the soil against erosion and nutrient losses by maintaining a permanent soil cover is a result of Conservation Agriculture.

2.     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.

3.     Water - Conservation agriculture requires significantly less water use due to increased infiltration and enhanced water holding capacity from crop residues left on the soil surface.

4.       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.

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