Delivering food security through conservation agriculture
DELIVERING FOOD SECURITY TOWARDS CONSERVATION AGRICULTURE
Assuring food security has been a central aspect of global governance efforts to promote prosperity, peace and stability. Unfortunately, with the growing population, trade globalization, shifting in food consumption demands, water and natural resources scarcity, instability in the volume of world food aid supply, climate change and desertification on farm land, make the food security condition is difficult to be reached (McDonald, 2011). However, McDonald (2011) highlights the fact that food security is not a target to be met, but that it is a progressive goal of ensuring access to food that is adequate, safe and nutritious. Yet, Dalby (2009) cited in McDonald (2011) points out the concerns over the impacts of population and scarcity of key resources such as food are not something new.
Desertification on farm and soil degradation have an immense negative impact on the productive capacity of soils. According to some research conducted by Ye and Ranst (2009) using a web-based land evaluation system in China, food crops may experience a 9 per cent loss in productivity by 2030 if the soil continues to be degraded at the current rate. Productivity losses will increase to the unbearable level of 30 per cent by 2050 should the soil be degraded at twice the present rate. More over, soil erosion affects soil depth and which in turn affects yields and farm output in the following years, that affect farmers income welfare as well (Holden and Shiferaw, 2004). Every year, 2–12 million hectares or 0.3–0.8 per cent of the world’s arable land is rendered unsuitable for agricultural production through soil degradation (Lal, 2007). Following those circumstances, in the early 1990s there was a sustainable intensification principle adopted by FAO which is called Conservation Agriculture to address those problems. Unfortunately, even this principle has a highly intention to promote a more sustainable way in doing agricultural practices to meet the global demands and underpin the food security, to link the agricultural intensification with conservation and hunger reduction is still face a great challenge (Kassam, 2011; Tscharntke et al., 2012)
This essay will first discuss about the principle of conservation agriculture, then moving on to the debate between conservation agriculture and conventional agriculture, and lastly will discuss about the ideal circumstances for conservation agriculture in order to tackle food insecurity. In this essay I examine conservation agriculture as a sustainable intensification which to some extent has key roles to tackle food insecurity. However, this principle must be accompanied by fundamental change in global food systems as well.
2. THE CONTENTIOUS CONSERVATION AGRICULTURE
2.1. Principle of Conservation Agriculture
Conservation Agriculture (CA) represents one of the new ‘biological and ecosystems’ paradigms for sustainable agricultural intensification that can include arable and perennial crops, pastures as well as trees and livestock (Landers, 2007). CA offers an ecological underpinning of all production systems that are land-based. It focusses resource conservation and profitable management of sustainable production intensification and ecosystem services. Basically, CA consists three interlinked principles that are better applied simultaneously (FAO, 2010; Friedrich and Kassam, 2009; Kassam et al., 2009). Here are the three principles of CA:
(1) Minimizing soil disturbance resulting from mechanical tillage and thus seeding or planting directly into untilled soil.
(2) Maintaining year-round organic matter cover over the top soil, including specially introduced cover crops or mulch provided by crop residues.
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(3) Diversifying crop rotations, adapted to local environmental conditions, and including appropriate nitrogen fixing legumes. The rotations contribute to maintain biodiversity around the soil, contributing nitrogen to the plant system, exploring different soil zones with varying rooting characteristics, helping to avoid pest build-up (Kassam et al., 2009).
2.2. Conservation Agriculture vs Conventional Agriculture
Though there are glaring cases of CA successes, for example the financial benefits for farmers in Paraguay who have adopted CA have been striking, but CA has not been widely acknowledged and accepted across the world (Borsy et al., 2013). The factors which influence farmer to adopt conservation agriculture principle is uneven between farmer to farmer. The demographic distribution of the farmers also shows that they are perceiving conservation agriculture in different terms (Kassam et al., 2009). There are some research held to analyse the factors which influence the implementation of conservation agriculture, such as age, education, land tenure, off-farm income, farm size, rainfall, soil productivity, soil erosion rate and farmers experience, but there is no particular result that shows the significant effect between the factors and the adoption (Knowler and Bradshaw, 2007). Basically, the CA implementation has two intellectual barriers to overcome: the first is that CA concept and principals are counterintuitive and contradict the common tillage-based farming experience, which has worked for generations and which often has created cultural values and rural traditions; the second is the lack of experiential knowledge about CA and the mechanism to acquire it (Friedrich and Kassam, 2009).
There are several arguments explain why some farmers decide to taken up CA and some do not. The first argument which is believed by the loyalists who favour conventional agriculture practices is that the soil would not produce desirable amount of crop at harvest time if the soil is not being ploughed. This is one of reasons because of which the third world has not yet adopted this modern technique of agriculture (Friedrich and Kassam, 2009). On the other hand, according to the research conducted by Derpsch (2008), the fact shows that in Paraguay the crop yields under conventional tillage declined 5-15 per cent over a period of ten years, while yields from zero-tillage (CA) systems increased 5-15 per cent. In addition, in Brazil, over a 17-year period, maize and soybean yields increased by 86 and 56 per cent respectively (Kassam et al., 2009). The yield increase from agriculture intensification could be used as a strategy to feed the current growing population in order to tackle food insecurity.
The second argument is the conventional farmers believe that conservation agriculture is a difficult process to be followed. As we all know, current agriculture practiced under smallholder farmers-dominated landscapes and not large scale farming, which is the backbone of global food security in developing world (Horling and Marsden (2011) cited in Tscharntke et al., (2012)). Many conventional farmers thought the CA technique demands a lot of effort both physical and mental. For example, in under developed countries like India, people are still committed to their old mode of farming and giving no consideration to modern techniques like conservation agriculture (Giller, 2009). However, in some places like Paraguay, the farmers have been assisted by the technical assistance provided by the Sustainable Natural Resource Management Project (PMRN) of the Paraguayan Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG) to adopt the CA principle. The technical assistance has a role to disseminate about CA concepts to farmers through workshops and training, and by this assistance farmers could tackle the difficulties of CA adoption especially in the beginning of adoption phase (Borsy et al., 2013). By delivering knowledge and information to farmers about sustainable intensification practices, at least there will be more certainty in the future of agriculture, especially with the climate change and desertification threaten our current farm land.
The third argument, farmers believed that CA would make crops more vulnerable to the diseases, pest and weed invasion. Furthermore, they believe that in this no-tillage principle the attack of weed is really difficult to handle. To eradicate them, one has to use expensive and countless herbicides or manual labour and both of them are difficult for the ordinary farmer to afford (Kassam et al., 2009). The build-up of inhibitory Pseudomonas on the slow-growing root tips of wheat in no-tillage soils has been linked to the slow early growth and reduced yield of wheat at some sites in southern Australia and Rhizoctonia remains a significant problem for no-tillage cropping on light-textured sandy soils. On the other hand, according to Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (2012), the weeds are now developed in such a manner that they may not even be eradicating even after having herbicides and the only way out which seems logical and fruitful is by implement conservation agriculture (CAST, 2012).
The fourth argument, many farmers believed CA is an expensive principle to maintain in terms of financial matters. Many of them doubt that the high initial cost of CA implementation especially for the equipments is a worthy option. However, after the beginning phase of CA implementation, FAO (2008) claimed that CA has a lower production costs, leads to greater harvests, and reduce risks in this manner increasing the profit margin. Over the same period, fertilizer and herbicide inputs dropped by an average of 30-50 per cent in the CA systems.. Furthermore, CA also shows the increasing efficiency of water use in irrigation with the use of water approximately 40 per cent less than the conventional agriculture, decrease pesticide and herbicide use up to 20 per cent, less fuel consumption by 50-70 per cent and fertilizer needs by 30-50 per cent (Kassam, 2011; Abdullaev and Molden, 2004). For example, in Brazil for more than ten years, fertilizer inputs for maize and soybean crops fell by 30 and 50 per cent, respectively, this means farmers could save a significant amount of money for their agricultural inputs (Kassam et al., 2009). Moreover, CA offer the smallholder farmers a better livelihood and income, by claim 50 per cent labour saving, less drudgery, stable yields and improved food security (Kassam, 2011). Sorrenson (1997) compared the financial profitability of CA on 18 medium and large-sized farms with conventional practice in two regions of Paraguay over ten years. He found that by the tenth year net farm income had risen from the CA farms from under US$10,000 to over US$30,000, while on conventional farms net farm income fell and even turned negative. Nevertheless, CA not only more efficient if compared to conventional agriculture, but also increasing farmers income, which has an indirect impact of increasing food security amongst smallholder farmers (Borsy et al., 2013).
The last argument, farmers believe that the quality of the soil will be reduced with such use of soil (Montgomery, 2007). On the other hand, according to the research conducted by Doran and Zeiss (2000), the fact shows that CA is a powerful tool for promoting soil health and agricultural sustainability, one of the key to achieve food security. CA can sustain the health of long-opened land which is already in good condition, raise cation-exchange-capacity, give better capture and release of nutrients, also can equally regenerate soils in poor condition (Doran and Zeiss, 2000). In addition, soil erosion in Brazil decreased from 3.4-8.0 t/ha under conventional tillage to 0.4 t/ha under no-till, and water loss fell from approximately 990 to 170 t/ha (Derpsch, 2008). One of the most interesting factors is the cover of the soil with the vegetation not only prevents the erosion of soil but also keep the salinity of the soil up to optimum level. Moreover, the consistent implementation of CA will also reduce the dependence on the chemical treatment of the plants and crops, therefore contributing a lot to preserve the nature of the soil (Montgomery, 2007; Friedrich and Kassam, 2009).
2.3. The ideal circumstances for CA implementation to tackle food insecurity
There are some circumstances that CA shows that this principle can tackle food insecurity. However the requirement of this principle to promote food security need support from all the stakeholder which are small-holder farmers, government, businesses and NGOs.
Most of activities related to the spread of CA principle worldwide is need the effective support from financial sources such as government and donor organization to run the project (Borsy et al, 2013). In the Sustainable Natural Resource Management Project in the Eastern Region of Paraguay, which is promoting the spread of CA principle amongst farmers, the project is funded by the joint agreement between Paraguay and Germany government, and which operates by the financial support (KfW) and German Development Cooperation (GIZ). Unfortunately, there are some constrains related to the transfer of incentives which are the major problem through the implementation of the project and might reduce the efficiency of the program (Borsy et al., 2013).
It is critical that the universal governance and development triangle (government, private, and non-profit sectors) must be active promoters of the process for goal attainment. It is important that policy makers come to a full understanding of the implication of the CA system, as a necessary background to the provision of an enabling environment. Government for example, must be able to provide necessary, and sufficient conditions within the political and administrative framework for the CA initiative to thrive, through actions such as, appropriate legislative and regulatory provisions that will enhance – trainings and extension services, field information and advocacy, land tenure systems, agricultural carbon market, and effective demand (Kassam et al., 2009).
Furthermore, university role as the citadels of learning and knowledge-sharing normally function as part of government, but must be distinguished because of their unique role in research and innovations. Whatever it takes, adaptive and integrated field research in key areas (equipment, farming systems, cover crops, plant nutrients, integrated pests management, soil health etc.) must be a continuum; with the active participation of the farmers, extension staff, and the multi-disciplinary team of researchers/scientists (Borsy et al., 2013; Kienzier et al., 2012; Albrecht et al., 2013).
Finally, is the major task for everybody to reversing the ‘mind-set of the plough’ which has become the status symbol of agriculture, and which has religiously converted many farmers, extension agents, researchers, university professors, and politicians into the faith of an impossible agriculture without tillage. The truth really is that, CA is a win-win concept for stakeholders at all scales, and there can not be a better time than now, that the global governing institutions are concerned about pervasive food insecurity and poverty, wide-spread degradation, high input and energy prices, and climate change (Knowler and Bradshaw, 2007; Giller et al., 2009; Albrecht et al., 2013).
In conclusion, despite of the obvious productivity, environmental, economic and social benefits of CA principles, the spread and adoption of CA as a sustainable intensification does not happen automatically. Both financial and knowledge delivery systems have been seen as a crucial factor causing the limitation of the spread of CA among farmers. Understanding the respective bottlenecks and problems allows developing strategies to overcome the problems. There is a need in the future for researchers, businesses and policy makers in finding a solution of spreading the CA principle without any doubt from farmers in order to promote food security within countries.
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