Conservation agriculture and sustainable land management

    Pistachio's trees cultivation /crop in the Aleppo Province    

Rasha Omar reporting on Conservation agriculture (CA), conveyed that CA is a concept for resource-saving agricultural crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits and high and sustained production levels while concurrently conserving the environment. CA is based on enhancing natural biological processes above and below the ground. Interventions such as mechanical soil tillage are reduced to an absolute minimum.  External inputs such as agrochemicals and nutrients of mineral or organic origin are applied at an optimum level and in a way and quantity that does not interfere with, or disrupt, the biological processes. CA is characterized by four linked principles:

  • Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance

  • Direct planting of crop seeds

  • Permanent organic soil cover

  • Diversified crop rotations for annual crops or plant associations for perennial crops

CA provides benefits such as:                                                          

  • It provides and maintains an optimum root zone environment to the maximum possible depth. Roots are able to function effectively and without restrictions to capture high amounts of plant nutrients and water. It ensures that water enters the soil so that

    • plants never, or for the shortest time possible, suffer water stress that will limit the expression of their potential growth

    • residual water passes down to groundwater and stream flow, not over the surface as run-off.    

  • It favours beneficial biological activity in the soil in order to

    • maintain and rebuild soil architecture

    • compete with potential in-soil pathogens

    • contribute to soil organic matter and various grades of humus

    • contribute to capture, retention, chelation and slow release of plant nutrients                                                                     

  • It avoids physical or chemical damage to roots that disrupts their effective functioning.     

  • It has a positive impact on the distribution of labour during the production cycle and, more importantly, reduces the requirement for labour. These are the main reasons why farmers in Latin America adopt CA, especially farmers who rely fully on family labour.

About 95 million ha across the world are under CA. Nearly 25 per cent of this area is located in the United States, 23 per cent is in Brazil and 18 per cent is in Argentina (Derpsch 2005). The existing literature suggests that CA is a good solution in areas characterized by commercial agriculture in fragile environments, secure land tenure and the absence of livestock competing for crop residues. In the NENA region (i.e. the Near East, North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and newly independent states), CA may be an option for an economically viable and environmentally sustainable agriculture in Newly Independent states region (CEN) in Eastern Europe.

In contrast, the rural poor in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) rely mainly on subsistence-oriented production and the integration of crops and animals. Leaseholds are fragmented, dispersed and held under communal tenure. Such conditions may explain the very limited practice of CA in this region.

International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is implementing a CA programme to address some of the constraints (for example the cost of the equipment, fuel consumption and application of herbicides and fertilizers). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also has experience that suggests that working on alternative feeding strategies would constitute a key enabling factor for smallholders to adopt CA.

Colleagues in CEN may consider CA as a sustainable land management practice. They should, however, realize that the full benefits of CA may take about three to seven years. During the transition from conventional to conservation agriculture, a number of problems may occur that may be related to weed management or the issue of a lengthy time required for the soil's physical and biological health to develop. These problems may discourage farmers early in the process. The literature suggests that this time lag is largely offset by farmers saving time and costs of production. Farmers using CA gain better yields than with conventional systems. Colleagues in NENA may consider launching CA at a pilot scale, especially in areas where commercial farming prevails and where a degree of land consolidation exists (for example in Tunisia).