Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovation Programme: rationale and motivation
Conservation Agriculture (CA)
There is now worldwide consensus that plough-based farming, as still widely practised, has unsustainable elements, whose continued promotion and application endangers global capacities to respond to the food security concerns. Ploughing and removal of crop residues after harvest leave soil naked and vulnerable to wind and rain, resulting in gradual, often unnoticed erosion of soil. This is like tire wear on your car — unless given the attention and respect it deserves, catastrophe is only a matter of time. Erosion also puts carbon into the air where it contributes to climate change.
In South Africa, crop production systems based on intensive and continuous soil tillage have led to excessively high soil degradation rates in grain producing areas. This adds to the growing problems with profitability and poverty in some of the rural areas. According to a recent study by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in South Africa, the average soil loss under grain crops in the country is 13 ton ha-1yr-1, which is much higher than the natural soil formation rate. If we have to offer farmers a better chance to survive on the farm and if sustainable and economically viable agriculture is to be achieved, then the paradigms of agriculture production and management must be changed.
There is general agreement among key stakeholders in SA, that these outcomes will be achieved through the adoption and implementation of Conservation Agriculture (CA) principles and practices. CA is seen as an ideal system for sustainable and climate-smart agricultural intensification, through which farmers can attain higher levels of productivity and profitability (i.e. or ‘green prosperity’) while improving soil health and the environment.
Conservation Agriculture (CA) is an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. CA is characterized by three linked principles, namely:
- Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance.
- Permanent organic soil cover.
- Diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations.
CA principles are universally applicable to all agricultural landscapes and land uses with locally adapted practices. CA enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface. Soil interventions such as mechanical soil disturbance are reduced to an absolute minimum or avoided, and external inputs such as agrochemicals and plant nutrients of mineral or organic origin are applied optimally and in ways and quantities that do not interfere with, or disrupt, the biological processes.
CA facilitates good agronomy, such as timely operations, and improves overall land husbandry for rainfed and irrigated production. Complemented by other known good practices, including the use of quality seeds, and integrated pest, nutrient, weed and water management, etc., CA is a base for sustainable agricultural production intensification. It opens increased options for integration of production sectors, such as crop-livestock integration and the integration of trees and pastures into agricultural landscapes.
Ample evidence now exists of the successes of CA under many diverse agro-ecological conditions to justify a major investment of human and financial resources in catalysing a shift, whenever and wherever conditions permit it, towards CA. This will lead to large and demonstrable savings in machinery and energy use and in carbon emissions, a rise in soil organic matter content and biotic activity. It will also reduce carbon emissions, ensure less erosion, increase crop water availability and thus resilience to drought, improve recharge of aquifers and reduce the impact of the apparent increased volatility in weather associated with climate change. It will cut production costs, lead to more reliable harvests and reduce risks especially for small holders.
Because of the multiple benefits that CA systems generate in terms of yield, sustainability of land use, incomes, timeliness of cropping practices, ease of farming and eco-system services, the area under CA systems has been growing exponentially in many countries, largely as a result of the initiative of farmers and their organizations. It is estimated that, worldwide, there are now almost 100 million hectares of arable crops which are grown each year without tillage. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, USA and Australia have adoption rates of above seventy percent. In South Africa, the total area under CA is still small relative to areas farmed using tillage, except in the Western cape and KwaZulu-Natal. However, there are a significant upswing in the number of innovative farmers (commercial and smallholder) practising CA successfully, as well as key research and development initiatives having a great success in promoting it.
The dirt beneath our feet is a living and magical world filled with tiny, wondrous creatures. A mere handful of soil might contain a half million different species including ants, earthworms, fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. These organisms need organic matter for food. Soil provides nearly all of our food – only one percent of our calories come from the oceans. Soil also gives life to all of the world’s plants that supply us with much of our oxygen, another important ecosystem service. Soil cleans water, keeps contaminants out of streams and lakes, and prevents flooding. Soil can also absorb huge amounts of carbon, second only to the oceans.
The quality and health of soils determine agricultural sustainability, environmental quality and, as a consequence, of plant, animal and human health. In its broader sense, soil health can be defined as the ability of soil to perform or function according to its potential, and changes over time due to human use and management of natural events.
The key issue facing South Africa is how to accelerate the large-scale uptake (mainstreaming), wherever appropriate, and in forms fitted to the diversity of local conditions and constraints, of CA-type systems. According to the FAO, this acceleration will require nothing short of a revolution in the way farmers, their advisers, scientists and those who influence farming policies think about, decide and act regarding soil and crop management.
From the experiences of mainstreaming CA around the world and in South Africa, there is now increasing understanding that it does not follow a linear process. An innovation systems (IS) perspective to this transformation into CA inter alia reveals that not only the science suppliers but the totality of actors are involved in the innovation process. Importantly, land-users are not merely recipients of new knowledge but also potential sources and/or partners in its generation, i.e. they are researchers and innovators in their own right. Accordingly, and at the very least, the emphasis has to be on on-farm innovation and the inescapable experiential and discovery learning that this generates; both of which critically place the farmer in the central role.
The CA Farmer Innovation Programme at Grain SA and The Maize Trust recognises, accept and uses farmers as CA innovators in their own right, through farmer-centered innovation systems and funding mechanisms. The CA FIP uses innovative, well organised and interested farmers and/or their structures (e.g. study groups, clubs, associations, etc.) as platform to launch projects and scale out CA to the surrounding farming communities.
CA is a fundamental change in doing agriculture – it is NOT business as usual. Correctly applied CA is the core of a sustainable and climate-smart agriculture – it can be complemented and combined with other approaches to farming, such as agroecology, organic farming, agroforestry and crop-livestock-integration, which only with the basic principles of CA will comply on all elements of a climate smart conservation agriculture.
The CA FIP has listed the following Key Strategic Objectives (KSO’s) and themes, which are continuously reviewed and/or improved: a) Diagnosis and documentation of CA systems; b) Awareness, Marketing and Access to Information; c) Farmer-centred Innovation Systems Research; d) Incentive and Market Based Mechanisms (IMBMs); e) Education and Training; and f) Innovation Platforms, Networks, Social learning, Brokering and Facilitation.
Project manager: Dr Hendrik Smith, Conservation Agriculture facilitator, ASSET Research
Hendrik Smith started his career in 1993 as soil scientist at the South African Agricultural Research Council (ARC). Since 1997 he was involved in a number of Landcare projects in the ARC for almost 15 years, primarily working on Conservation Agriculture (CA) among smallholders in SA. In 2006 he completed his PhD in Sustainable Agriculture, University of Free State, developing a model to research and adapt CA with farmers. From 2006 to 2012 he was programme manager at the ARC. Since 2013 he was appointed as the CA Facilitator (in Grain SA) with the responsibility to research and develop CA among commercial and smallholder grain producers in South Africa; this programme is supported by The Maize Trust, and currently implemented under ASSET Research.
Completed CA projects
Southern KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape: Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovation Programme for smallholders in the upper catchment areas of the Drakensberg, North Eastern Cape and Southern KwaZulu-Natal