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What is Conservation Agriculture?

It is widely recognized and accepted that agriculture is an important sector in the economies of most if not all of the world’s nations. However, agriculture is considered a significant contributor to the factors that are perceived to adversely affect the world’s climate, and to environmental degradation. As a result, there is a need to promote and adopt “conservation agriculture [CA]” principles in the world’s agricultural sector.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] of the United Nations, “CA is a farming system that can prevent losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands. It promotes minimum soil disturbance, maintenance of permanent soil cover, and diversification of plant species. It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, which contribute to increased water and nutrient use efficiency and to improved and sustained crop production.” Conservation of the resources that are needed by the agricultural sector to produce food has become increasingly critical because of the growing world population and the subsequent need for increasing sustainable food production. In essence, conservation agriculture promotes/is the wise use of the resources needed to produce food that is required to feed a growing world population, while simultaneously maintaining or enhancing the food production resources that will be needed to produce additional food for the foreseeable future. CA provides a base for sustainable agricultural production intensification, and options for integration of production sectors such as crops and livestock.

The three principles of CA are: 1) minimize mechanical disturbance of soil [i.e. no or zero tillage] so as to reduce or stop erosion, preserve soil organic matter [SOM], and not disturb soil microbial habitat; 2) provide a permanent organic soil cover with either crop residues [dead plant material] or cover crops in order to provide an enhanced environment for soil organisms, which in turn are instrumental in the breakdown of soil cover residues that will subsequently enhance SOM; and 3) increase species diversification through varied crop sequences or rotations that involve at least three different crop species. The CA concept supports and encourages sustainable land management, environmental protection, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and location-specific management practices that will result in production systems that are resilient to the effects of climate change at a given location. The CA concept embodies an increase in agricultural production that should be realized after the adoption and long-term use of its practices. CA practices should lead to or support sustainable intensification, or the process of increasing agricultural yields without adversely affecting the environment.

CA and good agronomy go hand-in-hand. CA principles are universally applicable to all agricultural sectors and land uses. External inputs–e.g. agricultural chemicals and plant nutrients–are applied only as needed and in ways and quantities that do not interfere with natural biological processes. However, the benefits attributed to use of CA practices will more than likely take a period of years to be realized by producers since an increase in organic matter will be slow. Thus, those who adopt CA principles must stay the course to realize the positive effects from CA production methods.

A major factor in the CA discourse is agriculture’s present-day contribution to the carbon [C] that is released into the atmosphere. Increased atmospheric C is recognized as a significant factor in the changes to climate that are adversely affecting the planet. Adoption of CA practices should result in a reduction in the amount of C released from agricultural enterprises. Click here for an article about how this can be used to generate additional revenue from the adoption of CA practices.

The FAO believes that the following three major benefits will accrue from the long-term use of CA practices. They are 1) increased SOM, 2) increased water conservation because of less runoff from CA fields due to the increase in ground cover and SOM, and 3) improved soil structure and rooting zone environment.

There are many constraints to the adoption of CA practices. The main one is the time [usually greater than 8-10 years] required to realize the yield and monetary benefits that are expected to accrue from CA adoption. Many of the world’s farmers may be unable to withstand the lower or negative profits that likely will occur during the early years of using CA practices. Thus, some sort of public support program during the early years of CA adoption will likely be required to encourage producers to convert to and stay with this production system over the long term.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Mar. 2023,