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Making the case for conservation agriculture

May 10,2015

Conservation agriculture - a proven solution for sustainably raising agricultural production

Forced to contend with rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity, dryland farmers need proven solutions that balance yields, resource conservation, and increased efficiency. Conservation agriculture – the practice of not plowing farmlands and leaving crop residue in the field for improved soil fertility and water conservation – brings optimal production at the best cost. Its recent application in Iraq demonstrates its potential as a means of raising productivity across the world’s dry areas.  

Already prominent within the agricultural production systems of more developed nations, conservation agriculture is attracting increasing interest in the dry areas of the developing world - from Central and West Asia, to the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Conservation agriculture means lower fuel and labor costs and a sustainable means of raising productivity against a backdrop of climate change. ICARDA’s recent efforts to promote the practice in Iraq provide a proven model for its application elsewhere.  

Successes in Iraq

Funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), ICARDA researchers have been able to convince a significant number of previously skeptical Iraqi farmers about the benefits of conservation agriculture – many initially believed the widespread, but mistaken perception, that plowing is essential for crop production. Perceptions were challenged through demonstrations in research stations and on farmer fields.

The benefits were clear: energy, labor, and time savings; water conservation; and healthier soils with improved structure and fertility. There were also environmental advantages – reduced greenhouse gases due to the more limited dependence on tractors and fossil fuels; cleaner air because farmers no longer needed to burn stubble; and less soil erosion.

Farmers who adopted conservation agriculture achieved yield increases of 160 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha), generating an additional 100 USD per hectare (USD/ha), on average. As a result of these benefits, the area devoted to conservation agriculture in Iraq now exceeds 15,000 hectares (ha) – up from zero ha in 2007.

One of those won over to Conservation Agriculture was Sarmad Karim Khalil Kakay. While convinced of all the benefits of conservation agriculture, his main motivation is clear: “Zero tillage has provided more profit, and in the last two or three years we have not had to use fertilizer. It also provides more water storage in the soil so you don’t have to use as much water – you just have to plant and wait for the mercy of God.”      

Overcoming adoption constraints

While the advantages of conservation agriculture are well known, there is one major constraint to its extension - the limited availability of appropriate and affordable seeding machinery. Those most commonly available are large, complex, and heavy foreign models beyond the means of most smallholder farmers.

In response, researchers initiated the development of proto-type models adapted to prevailing conditions in Iraq, engaging with local manufacturers through workshops and demonstrations to construct seeders and inexpensive kits that give farmers the means to adapt their own conventional seeders to zero-tillage models. 

Manufactured using local materials, the new models are smaller, lighter, and consist of fewer parts, thereby ensuring they are easier to maintain. They are also cost-effective: they sell for around 8000 USD, less than half the price of seeders imported from Europe, South America, and Australia. The aim now is to promote the large-scale commercial production of both the seeders and kits.      

Achieving long-term sustainability

Efforts were undertaken to build a strong foundation that could sustain the long-term extension and dissemination of conservation agriculture. Seminars, short-term courses, six-month research fellowships, on-the-job training, and study tours were delivered to over 700 Iraqi scientists and extension specialists.

Despite the on-going instability in Iraq, researchers are optimistic these activities will continue to deliver. “We’re confident that we can achieve long-term adoption and improved sustainability in Iraq. We were able to reach a critical mass of farmers in the areas where we worked, who, convinced of the benefits of Conservation Agriculture, will go on to share their knowledge and expertise with others,” argued Senior Scientist, Dr. Stephen Loss.    

ICARDA researchers also talk of a ‘spillover’ effect to other countries in the region - as policymakers learn about the benefits of conservation agriculture, and its success in Iraq. For instance, word spread to farmers in neighboring Syria where conservation agriculture, applied to an area of approximately 30,000 ha, reduced production costs by 38 percent, produced 465 kg/ha extra yield, and earned farmers an additional net income of 187 USD/ha.

There were also improvements in nutrition. As part of a household survey targeting farmers in Syria, a socio-economics team at ICARDA estimated that conservation agriculture delivered a 26 kg (25 percent) gain in per capita wheat consumption per year.

“The nutrition gains represent meaningful changes in the livelihoods of small- and medium-scale farmers in Syria,” says Dr. Yigezu A. Yigezu, who participated in the socio-economic analysis. “Along with the positive biophysical and environmental benefits of the adoption of zero-tillage, which are well known, our results suggest that the practice can also be justified on economic and food security grounds.”  

Scaling-up and out

The framework applied in Iraq is now being perceived as a model for the rest of the region – and beyond. Efforts are now on-going in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Tajikistan. While it is still too early to clarify adoption levels, ICARDA has already initiated a series of capacity strengthening programs in each of these countries, and it is estimated that in North Africa, the practice has been demonstrated to over 1500 stakeholders – from university scientists and students to extension agents and policy makers.

Word on the benefits of Conservation Agriculture is therefore spreading. As countries in the dry areas of the world perceive a future of rising temperatures and increasing water scarcity, the practice offers significant potential – as a means of strengthening resilience and helping farmers adapt to the multiple threats posed by climate change.

The project in numbers:

  • Area devoted to conservation agriculture now exceeds 15,000 hectares (ha) in Iraq
  • Iraqi farmers achieved average yield increases of 160 kg/ha
  • Iraqi farmers earned an additional 100 USD/ha on average
  • Impacts were also felt in neighboring Syria: production costs decreased by 38 percent, yields increased by 465 kg/ha, and farmers earned an additional 187 USD/ha  
  • Syrian households have experienced a 26 kg (25 percent) gain in per-capita wheat consumption.
 
Successful implementation:
 
  • Change mindsets - convince farmers that plowing is not essential for high crop production
  • Provide appropriate and affordable seeding machinery - invest in smaller, lighter, and more cost-effective models
  • Capacity strengthening - in addition to farmers, involve other stakeholders, including researchers, extension agents, and decision makers. 

This research was conducted within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems and supported by Australian Aid.