C is for Conservation Agriculture


21 September 2014

The latest in our A to Z of food sovereignty: Conservation Agriculture (CA)

Maria Erro used to struggle to grow enough food on her half-hectare plot in Karatu district, in northern Tanzania…[her] life changed dramatically in October 2002, when she learned how to use an approach called conservation agriculture. Instead of hoeing the soil, she left the dried stalks and leaves from the previous crop on the surface. She learned how to plant maize seed directly through this mulch…

Between the maize rows, she planted lablab – a legume that spreads quickly, covers the soil with a dense, leafy mat, and produces an edible seed. The lablab smothered the weeds, freeing her of the backbreaking task of weeding the plot. The lablab also fixed nitrogen in the soil, so her maize crop benefited. She harvested six bags of maize, instead of the two or three she had got in previous years…“It was a miracle”, she says, “I will practise conservation agriculture forever.”

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a farming technique that requires very little digging of the soil, the use of cover crops to increase soil fertility, and reducing chemical inputs. Conservation Agriculture has been hugely successful and is estimated to be spreading rapidly. Today it covers an estimated 130 million hectares globally. The benefits of CA include:

  • Uses less water due to less digging and increasing ground cover
  • Saves money as it uses less inputs
  • Higher crop yields
  • Better household nutrition and health due to more food availability
  • Improved soil fertility
  • Less weeds
  • Less soil erosion

 Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT
No-till, animal-traction direct seeder for conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT

CA’s focus on reducing soil erosion, water and nutrient loss, and increasing crop diversity makes it an invaluable tool for increasing small-scale farmer resilience. Some countries, particularly in South America, have made concerted efforts to encourage the adoption of CA practices. In Africa, a long-term commitment is needed from governments and agriculture development projects to support farmers in adopting CA and to carry out more research on this relatively new approach to farming. Although CA is used by both large-scale and small-scale farmers, the emphasis on reducing digging, and the reduced use of chemical fertilizers makes it a positive alternative to conventional industrial agriculture.

In Southern Africa, more than 50,000 farmers now practice CA. They have been able to increase maize yields by 3-4 metric tonnes per hectare compared to conventional yields of between 0.5 and 0.7 metric tonnes per hectare. A survey of farmers in Zimbabwe showed that CA farmers had yields up to six times higher than on conventional farms as well as lower financial and labour inputs.


About the A-Z of food sovereignty project

The A-Z of Food Sovereignty in Africa shows the positive alternatives to corporate-led agriculture. A new letter was posted each day in the lead up to World Food Day arrived on 16 October 2014.

Africa’s small-scale food producers already know how to produce enough food sustainably to feed themselves but the political and economic rules which govern the food system are set against them. These rules are written by and for multinational companies and political elites, in support of a global food system that benefits them rather than the millions of smallholders and family farmers who produce the food and get little in return.

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