An ever-rising global population and widespread urbanization are reducing the land available for agriculture, causing food security to be increasingly of concern. Multi sector pressure on agriculture-including from food, health and industry – is further limiting opportunities. The farming community is compelled to produce at elevated rates without taking the integrity of the natural landscape into account. Intensive farming and unstoppable degradation of land, water and forests is a disastrous experiment and adverse climatic changes are worsening the situation. A change of mindset and sincere shift towards a sustainable agriculture that includes conservation and preservation is of great need.
Adoption of conservation agriculture is a paradigm shift requiring huge efforts and tradeoffs at the individual and institutional level. It is a long-term solution to agricultural challenges in small land holding farming communities, especially in tropical regions. This technique is progressing at the research-scale, but adoption at the farmer level is low. Farmers and authorities face many hurdles, and institutional support, innovative policymaking, organizational collaboration, motivated think tanks and government supervision are of utmost need to develop a strong system that supports this type of holistic agriculture.
One of the most important policies to promote conservation agriculture is “Save and Grow” coined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It asserts the idea that sustainable production and economics go hand in hand and has simplified and clarified the theme of conservation agriculture. It promotes the theory explicitly by providing pragmatic solutions and uses experience-based facts to support the practices of conservation agriculture. Some examples include improved food chains and value added products, eco-friendly farming and the implementation of conservation principles for economic benefit.
Intensified production is still possible under conservation regime with benefits of lower capital cost, reduced inputs, flexibility (adaptation), enhanced ecosystem efficiency and environmental protection. Most policy work has been based on modified tillage practices in the past. In some parts of world, conservation has been narrated as transformed tillage packages like zero tillage, reduced tillage, minimum tillage, etc. but we know that it is much more than that and a shift has been observed in which think tanks are working to integrate all the principles of conservation agriculture. Previously, adoption was higher in North and South America and Australia followed by Europe and Eurasian countries.
The reasons behind greater adoption in these regions include more research being conducted, advanced technology, larger areas for agriculture and social awareness. In the last ten years, conservation agriculture has been spreading in Asia and Africa, as well as in Europe. At present, there are some 125 million hectares of arable crop land under conservation agriculture, corresponding to about 9% of global crop land, spread across all continents and agro ecologies, with some 50% of the area being located in developing countries.
Institutions are the main hub for information gathering, knowledge sharing and technology transfer; thus, the role of institutional development in agriculture is very significant. A great deal of work is being done to encourage the adoption of conservation agriculture at national and international levels. Governments are sensing the vitality of these important systems and reinforcing the approach through many actions.
In developed countries, the scientific community is leading the way by innovating and modifying steps for sustainability. But now a shift is under progress. Authorities are becoming aware of their responsibilities, and public sector movements towards the adoption of conservation agriculture are flourishing. Institutions are supporting the farming community to utilize subsidized conservation packages. Incentives and visual economic profitability helps to promote adoption rate and reduce concerns of the farming community.
Adoption of zero tillage in rice-wheat cropping systems in the Indo-Gangetic plains is a successful case of conservation agriculture adoption in developing world. It has been made possible by the consistent efforts of renowned institutions like FAO, CSISA, CIMMYT, ICARDA, ICRISAT, etc. in collaboration with local governments and NGOs. Similarly, a great deal of work is progressing in Central Asia, Africa and other regions. Conservation approaches like organic farming, zero tillage, permanent bed planting, deficit irrigation, direct seeded rice and pastoral farming are not only becoming popular in the world of research and policy, but are also being adapted at farm-level.
The state of conservation agriculture in the world today could be improved through further institutional support and policy making in future. It is important for policy makers to think in long-term developments and integrated approaches, even across sectors and ministries. One great way to start this would be to finance study tours, field days and other opportunities for farmers to meet each other and discuss conservation issues of mutual interest to stimulate innovations.
The authors are associated with Agro-biology Lab, Department of Agronomy, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan.