The damaging effects of tillage on soils is well documented on Europe and North American soils. So why is that approach still being exported to developing nations, proponents of conservation agriculture asked the recent World Conference on Conservation Agriculture.
“We’re taking that paradigm to developing countries, so one has to ask, what is actually going on, why are we doing it?” said Amir Kassam of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “We are cutting our own legs off, and we are basically promoting the chopping off the legs of others.”
Kassam, who is also an adviser to the Aga Khan Foundation and the European Conservation Agriculture Federation when he is not fulfilling his role as a visiting professor at the University of Reading, noted that science provided the Green Revolution “when we needed it most.” But he said that the time for solely production-focused agriculture has passed.
Instead, soil health, water conservation and resource management needs to play an integral role in farming, as producers also strive for yield and profit.
“Whichever way sustainable intensification is defined… in the end, it must have ecological underpinnings,” said Kassam. “Without ecological underpinnings — of our productions systems, of our agricultural landscape — there is no way we can harness sustainability.”
As the world’s population expands, the focus on intensification has increased as well. As a result, some have pushed for a move away from smaller farms to larger, more industrial operations.
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Author and geologist David Montgomery said those operations are often focused on tillage-based production models and high inputs.
He said that many “myths of agriculture” are deeply embedded — such as the idea that conventional agriculture is feeding the world.
“Well no, actually if you look at the whole world, it’s sort of small-scale agriculture that is feeding most people on the planet,” Montgomery said.
Neil Rowe Miller is working with small-scale farmers in Southern and Eastern Africa as a technical adviser with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. He believes small-scale farming and conservation are a good fit.
“There are skeptics regarding whether conservation agriculture is a viable approach for farming on a small scale, I think it’s clear from my experience… that it is,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean that conservation agriculture is a panacea for the developing world, Miller added.
“We need to verify the impacts of the conservation agriculture system that we are promoting,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — and if we operate with the assumption that what we’re promoting is in fact superior to what farmers are already doing, but we don’t monitor that, I think we’re doing the farmers we work with a disservice.”
Howard Buffett of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation believes there are opportunities to draw from biotechnologies and conventional agriculture, as well as from organics, as conservation agriculture takes root in areas of the world moving towards intensive agriculture.
“There will be a lot of things that we can bring as Americans, there will be a lot of things that American companies can bring that are hugely beneficial,” he said “But we also have to realize that there’s a lot of different cultures and a lot of different needs and a lot of different growing systems and a huge amount of variation in the wealth of farmers.”
But development plans too focused on foreign companies or on business opportunities leave some wary, even if they acknowledge a need for private investment in development.
Kassam notes that many poverty alleviation strategies are “coated with ideals of entrepreneurship.”
“Somehow we assume that these entrepreneurs, money-seeking people, will understand what is the cause of degradation,” he said, stressing that the goals of those looking to build business are often at odds with those looking to build soil and reduce inputs.
“We need to focus on building knowledge, not on supplying inputs,” said Miller, who noted that some farmers in the programs he advises do purchase fertilizer, but that they don’t do it using subsidies.
The ultimate goal is to move farmers towards cover crops and green manures, and improved soil health.
However, the current health of African soils — as diverse as they are — is an important factor as well.
“The FAO claims that 75 per cent of (African) soils have been degraded by human activity,” said Buffett. “And from what I’ve seen, I’d say that’s definitely accurate, so then you’re now trying to rebuild — you’re not just starting from scratch, you’re trying to rebuild something.”
That claim of soil degradation has not, however, stopped countries like China, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands or India from buying vast tracks of land in Africa for agricultural purposes. Many foreign and international companies have also grabbed land in Africa.
Oxfam International reports that 560 million acres of farmland in developing countries are now owned by companies based in Asia or the Middle East. Some of the land was reportedly purchased for less than US$1 per hectare.
How this will affect conservation agriculture, soil health, poverty and food security remains to be seen, but it has caused concerns. At least for those who are aware of it.
“Most of us don’t see what’s happening around the globe,” said Kassam.
Montgomery expressed frustration that some notable proponents of international development are not doing more to assist in establishing conservation agriculture and support small-scale farmers.
“They are being told by people that conservation agriculture and organic agriculture can’t feed the world, it’s a hippie fantasy. Well look at the data,” he said.
What is needed, according to Miller, is a move away from prescriptive education and greater integration with local knowledge.
“These farmers are not confused, they are not deviating from best practices, they are in fact teaching us what the best practices are,” he said.