Asian Farmers Moving to Give Up the Plow

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, October 3, 2001 (ENS) - A major agricultural transformation is sweeping across Asia's breadbasket regions, scientists announced Tuesday. The move toward low till agriculture could help chart a course toward more ecologically friendly, higher producing, cost effective agriculture among all groups of farmers in Asia, the researchers said.


Indian farmers with low till wheat harvest (All photos courtesy CIMMYT)
So called low till farming, which does away with intensive and repeated plowing of farmers' fields, is increasing harvests, reducing water use by as much as 30 to 50 percent, and requiring less fuel for running tractors on farms, reported scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Because there are one-half to two-thirds fewer weeds on low till farms, herbicide use is also reduced.

Farmers living in four countries - Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan - are taking up low till agriculture in such numbers that scientists say the impact in the region could be as great as the Green Revolution of the 1970s.

The success of the approach comes at an opportune time as water scarcity across Asia and a three year drought in Pakistan threaten the region's rice and wheat yields. The transformation in farming is largely the result of pioneering agricultural research and promotional work begun in the region by the Mexico based CIMMYT.

"This region of 1.3 billion inhabitants is beset by overcrowding, poverty and misery," said professor Timothy Reeves, director general of CIMMYT. "To feed soaring populations, farmers must increasingly use more fertilizer, water, and herbicides to get the same or greater crop yields from their land. Low till agriculture enables them to increase their productivity while at the same time decreasing - not increasing - these inputs. This new agricultural revolution in South Asia is poised to be a greener revolution than the one that took place in the 1970s."

More than 150 million people depend solely upon the region's rotational cropping of rice and wheat during the wet and dry seasons. In terms of intensity of food production, it is the most important agricultural system for feeding South Asia's burgeoning population, both urban and rural.


Low till wheat produced in Nepal
"South Asia is facing an extreme crisis in water - the lifeblood of this region - and that could be absolutely devastating," said Peter Hobbs, PhD, a natural resource agronomist with CIMMYT and one of the lead scientists on these efforts in the region. "Without conservation of water through practices like low till agriculture, this region will become dependent upon imported food, which no one can afford. This would create inevitable food shortages and severe malnutrition in a population where 40 percent of the people live on less than US$2 per day."

Many parts of the world, including the European Union, are debating the restructuring of agricultural policy to be more focused on environmental and food security needs. Low till practices are part of an overall trend toward more ecological farming in developing countries.

"Low till is one of the best examples in the world of technologies working for both people and the environment," said Reeves.

Currently, low till practices are being used for sowing wheat after the harvesting of rice. An example of its rapid spread is found in India and Pakistan, where the area sown to low till agriculture increased from a modest 3,000 plus hectares in 1998-99 to more than 100,000 hectares in 2000-2001.


Plowing is customarily done to break up soil into smaller particles that form a better soil structure for planting the next crop. In Asian rice-wheat cropping systems, farmers must make as many as six to 12 tractor passes across the field when they plant wheat after rice, because the soil is wet and muddy or cloddy.


Wheat sprouts sown with low till methods
To grow rice, farmers plow the wet soil, which breaks down the soil structure and allows water to puddle rather than sink into the soil. To plant wheat, farmers have to rebuild the soil by repeated plowing.

"Plowing significantly delays planting of wheat," said Hobbs. "As a result, the crop often does not mature before the onset of the hot, dry season before the monsoon. The dry heat shrivels the grain and reduces harvests and incomes."

Plowing also exposes the soil to air, which oxidizes soil matter and roots. Over time, organic matter - an important source of nutrients in the soil - is depleted. Soil moisture is also depleted, increasing the need for water through irrigation.

Low till agriculture, however, leaves much or all of the soil surface and existing ground cover undisturbed during the planting process. It generally makes use of a planter or seed drill.

In one pass across a field, the planter places seeds and fertilizer through the rice straw left standing from the previous harvest into the soil below. Because the leftover straw remains anchored into the soil, those roots provide channels for wheat roots to grow; a habitat for beneficial insects to prey on invasive insects; and, as it decomposes, a natural fertilizer of organic matter for the wheat crop.

Locally manufactured planters are fairly inexpensive at US$400-500 each and can sow about 80 hectares (200 acres) per cropping season. Farmers with little cash can rent this equipment.

The low till technology is designed to be accessible to farmers with limited resources who have no equipment, little cash, and often very little land. Seventy-four percent of the farmers who used low till between 1999-2000 in Haryana State, India, did not own tractors, and rented planters at a low cost.

Other low till practices are also being used in the region, such as raised soil beds - or bed planting - and direct seeding of presoaked wheat seeds into still moist rice fields - or surface seeding.


Prototype planting machine for low till farming

"Low till practices have caught on like wildfire among farmers, with the area being planted to low till agriculture increasing ten fold per year," said Hobbs. "Manufacturers cannot make planters fast enough to meet the demand from farmers."

CIMMYT works in partnership with the national research programs of South Asia in an alliance known as the Rice-Wheat Consortium for the Indo-Gangetic Plains, which also includes the Philippines based International Rice Research Institute.

Both CIMMYT and the Rice Research Institute are Future Harvest Centers. Future Harvest is a global, nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC that builds awareness and support for food and environmental research around the world.