Conservation Agriculture Called Next Green Revolution

MADRID, Spain, October 3, 2001 (ENS) - Intensive land cultivation methods using tractors and plows are a major cause of severe soil loss and land degradation in many developing countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said Monday. If farmers applied ecologically sound cultivation, millions of hectares of agricultural land could be protected or saved from degradation and erosion, the organization said.

tillage

In conventional agriculture, the soil is turned over repeatedly, an expensive and environmentally damaging process (All photos courtesy European Conservation Agriculture Federation)
Particularly in warmer areas, where the topsoil layer is thin, conventional tillage contributes to soil loss. Land degradation also occurs in industrialized countries due to exaggerated mechanized tillage using powerful heavy machines.

At the opening of the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, taking place this week in Madrid, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said that moving to conservation agricultural techniques could halt the ongoing loss of agricultural land.

"The way soils are cultivated today needs to be changed," said FAO assistant director general Louise Fresco. "For agriculture to be sustainable, economically attractive and socially acceptable, it must successfully exploit the productive potential of those crop and animal genetic resources which are best adapted to the local environment. This is achieved by effectively and efficiently using available natural resources without depleting them."

Applying so called "Conservation Agriculture" means that farmers drastically reduce tillage and keep a protective soil cover of leaves, stems and stalks from the previous crop. This cover shields the soil surface from heat, wind and rain, keeps the soils cooler and reduces moisture losses by evaporation.

Less tillage also means lower fuel and labor costs, and farmers need to spend less on heavy machinery, the FAO said. Crop rotation over several seasons is essential to minimize the outbreak of pests and diseases, the group cautioned.

conservation

In conservation agriculture, crop residues and other organic materials are used as ground cover to protect the soil from the sun, pests and erosion
Globally, conservation agriculture is now being practiced on about 58 million hectares of land, from the tropics almost to the Arctic Circle. The nations with the most land in ecologically sound cultivation include the United States - around 20 million hectares; Brazil - 13.5 million hectares; Argentina - 9.5 million hectares; Canada - four million hectares; and Paraguay - 800,000 hectares.

The system has been adapted for grain crops and pulses, and also for sugar cane, vegetables, potatoes, beets, cassava and fruits.

"The message that no tillage reduces input costs, benefits soil quality and reduces erosion and environmental pollution, is beginning to be embraced by farmers worldwide," the FAO said.

For the farmer, conservation farming is attractive because it reduces production costs, time and labor. Soil tillage is the single most energy consuming and air polluting operation among all farming activities.

By not tilling the soil, farmers can save between 30 and 40 percent of time, labor and fuel costs compared to conventional cropping. In mechanized systems, investment and maintenance costs for machinery are lower in the long term.

erosion

Conservation agriculture reduces soil erosion. The total costs of erosion from agriculture in the U.S. are estimated at about EUR85.5 per hectare of land each year
In many areas it has been observed after some years of conservation farming, natural springs that had disappeared started to flow again, the FAO said. Water filters easily through soils under conservation agriculture, increasing the groundwater level, reducing surface runoff and thus soil erosion.

"Conservation Agriculture reaches yields comparable with modern intensive agriculture but in a sustainable way," the FAO stressed. "Yields tend to increase over the years with yield variations decreasing."

Conservation agriculture is not organic farming, but both could be combined, the FAO emphasized. In conservation agriculture, farm chemicals, including fertilizer and herbicides are still applied, but over the years, the quantities used tend to decline.

The FAO has been promoting conservation farming for more than 10 years, particularly in Latin America where conservation agriculture has become a success story.

In Brazil's subtropical southern state of Santa Catarina, farmers in the past relied heavily on mineral fertilizers, toxic pesticides and heavy machinery, such as tractors, ploughs and harrows. They tended to grow the same crop - usually maize - from one year to the next.

no till

One conservation agriculture method, known as no tillage, requires as little as one pass for planting compared to two or more tillage operations plus planting for conventional tillage
Increasing erosion and declining yields prompted a fresh look at soil management and a steady shift over the past two decades to conservation agriculture, now being applied on 685,000 hectares, or more than one third of the state's total cropped area.

The FAO is expanding the program to other regions, such as Africa, Central and South Asia.

More information on the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture is available at: http://www.ecaf.org/Congress/Latest_news.htm