Conservation Agriculture

Dennis Garrity, Director General, World Agroforestry Centre

I’d like to thank Dr Mangala Rai and his team for their efforts in drawing us together today for this 4th Congress on Conservation Agriculture. Ever since the pioneering book called The Plowman’s Folly was written nearly 70 years ago, there’s been a gradual realization in the agricultural science community that Conservation Agriculture was the way of the future, for farming to become more productively sustainable. And we owe a great deal to those scientists who’ve devoted their lives and careers to finding ways to make the principles of Conservation Agriculture come alive and borne out on the land.

It’s been a hard slog over the yeares. Reduced tillage has not been an easy concept to grasp for most farmers, outside of a limited group of early pioneers, who themselves sacrificed greatly to try it out, tinker with it, and gradually make it work on their farms. For most farmers, putting away the plow isn’t an intuitively logical thing to do. It took enormous efforts, and many disappointments, before the concept did bear fruit, attracted the attention of the neighbors, and eventually the wider farming community.

We are indeed standing on the shoulders of these giants, when we look out and see today a total of 95 million hectares of no-tillage practiced around the world. Now we have the benefit of millions of farmers’ adaptations, who’ve found success through conservation agriculture in raising their crop yields, improving the health of their soils for long term sustainability, and they are now making significant contributions to the future health of our entire planet as well.

The potential role incorporating trees in agricultural systems to enhance conservation agriculture is also now widely appreciated through the dedicated efforts of many scientists who’ve investigated the possibilities of agroforestry. But the question is: just how to increase tree cultivation in agriculture in practical ways, that make good sense on the farm, particularly in smallholder agriculture?

The most successful manifestation of conservation agriculture has been the expansion of zero tillage. As I mentioned, it is now practiced on over 95 m hectares around the world: a remarkable accomplishment.

But when you look it more closely, the situation it is not nearly so comforting as that number first suggests.

On the global scale, no-tillage is almost exclusively a large or medium-sized farmer domain. About 40% of no-till is practiced in North America, another 47% is practiced in South America, and 9% in Australia: with less than 4% of no-tillage in the rest of the world – including South Asia, East and SE Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Almost all of this no-till is found on large and medium-sized farms on lands outside of the real tropical belt. In the tropics the area of zero tillage on holding of the typical the size of the vast majority of farms in Asia and Africa, including the farming sector right here in India, is totally insignificant.

The vast bulk of smallholdings in the tropics range in size from less than one-hectare to just a few hectares. This is the rural population that most desperately poor. They need conservation agriculture, yet, except for a few ecosystems, such as the irrigated rice-wheat belt of northern India, conservation agriculture still seems a distant prospect for them.

There are many constraints. And there will be numerous presentations at this meeting that will delve into these constraints. One of these barriers that is most debilitating for smallholders is Competition for crop residues. This competition is extreme in smallholder agriculture. For most smallholders, their crop residues are such a valuable resource for livestock fodder that to forgo their immediate use as fodder to enhance the longterm health of their soils is just too much of a sacrifice.

How to alleviate that dilemma is central to any expansion of conservation agriculture in the tropics. Some radically new approaches are needed!

Agroforestry is providing some of these new approaches. It should thus be playing a much greater role in the debates and the research directions on the future of conservation agriculture. In the recent FAO State of the World’s Forests report there is some bad news and some fortuitously good news that we can take to heart. The bad news is that the number of trees in forests continues to decline at an alarming rate. But the good news is that the number of trees on farms throughout most parts of the world is steadily increasing. Farmers everywhere are working more trees into their agricultural systems. We need to be both more aware of that phenomenon, and more engaged in enhancing it for the benefit of conservation agriculture.

This conference comes at a critical moment when the global debate on a new climate change agreement is really heating up. Until a few years ago, agriculture, forestry and land use was virtually excluded from that debate. By about 2005 the issue of deforestation finally broke into the consciousness of the negotiators. And by 2008 it was firmly recognized as a critical investment area for the new climate change treaty. Unfortunately, agriculture remained beyond the pale. It was still ignored as a focus of investment – even though agriculture is the source of about 14% of global CO2 emissions, and is the primary driver of forest conversion that results in another 18% of emissions.

The role of agriculture simply can’t be ignored any longer in any comprehensive approach to tackling global carbon emissions. This needs to be seriously addressed in at the next global conference of the parties in Copenhagen, with particular emphasis on what can be done about it through conservation agriculture.

I foresee that this congress can send some strong signals to the broader international community on how to get agriculture fully embedded into the global agreements on climate change.

I look forward to the upcoming discussions in the coming days on these critical topics.

Thank you.