FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS - helping to build a world without hunger

Advantages and disadvantages of CA
To be widely adopted, all new technology needs to have benefits and advantages that attract a broad group of farmers who understand the differences between what they are doing and what they need. In the case of conservation agriculture these benefits can be grouped as: Economic benefits
Three major economic benefits can result from CA adoption:
  • Time saving and thus reduction in labour requirement.
  • Reduction of costs, e.g. fuel, machinery operating costs and maintenance, as well as a reduced labour cost.
  • Higher efficiency in the sense of more output for a lower input.
The positive impact of conservation agriculture on the distribution of labour during the production cycle and, even more important, the reduction in labour requirement are the main reasons for farmers in Latin America to adopt conservation agriculture, especially for farmers who rely fully on family labour.
Manual labour for soil preparation is back-breaking and unnecessary. Should the supply of labour be reduced, through sickness or migration, then the system can quickly become unsustainable. (T.Friedrich).

Agronomic benefits
Adopting conservation agriculture leads to improvement of soil productivity:
  • Organic matter increase.
  • In-soil water conservation.
  • Improvement of soil structure, and thus rooting zone.
The constant addition of crop residues leads to an increase in the organic matter content of the soil. In the beginning this is limited to the top layer of the soil, but with time this will extend to deeper soil layers. Organic matter plays an important role in the soil: fertilizer use efficiency, water holding capacity, soil aggregation, rooting environment and nutrient retention, all depend on organic matter.
A soya plant with deformed root system due to compaction. The roots show a marked tendency to lateral development with few vertical roots to explore other soil strata. (D. McGarry).

Environmental benefits:
  • Reduction in soil erosion, and thus of road, dam and hydroelectric power plant maintenance costs.
  • Improvement of water quality.
  • Improvement of air quality.
  • Biodiversity increase.
  • Carbon sequestration.
Residues on the soil surface reduce the splash-effect of the raindrops, and once the energy of the raindrops has dissipated the drops proceed to the soil without any harmful effect. This results in higher infiltration and reduced runoff, leading to less erosion. The residues also form a physical barrier that reduces the speed of water and wind over the surface. Reduction of wind speed reduces evaporation of soil moisture.

Soil erosion is reduced close to the regeneration rate of the soil or even adding to the system due to the accumulation of organic matter. Soil erosion fills surface water reservoirs with sediment, reducing water storage capacity. Sediment in surface water increases wear and tear in hydroelectric installations and pumping devices, which result in higher maintenance costs and necessitates earlier replacement.

More water infiltrates into the soil with conservation agriculture rather than running off the soil surface. Streams are then fed more by subsurface flow than by surface runoff. Thus, surface water is cleaner and more closely resembles groundwater in conservation agriculture than in areas where intensive tillage and accompanying erosion and runoff predominate. Greater infiltration should reduce flooding, by causing more water storage in soil and slow release to streams. Infiltration also recharges groundwater, and thus increasing well supplies and revitalizing dried up springs.

Sediment and dissolved organic matter in surface water must be removed from drinking water supplies. Less sediment loss and less soil particles in suspension, lead to a reduced cost for water treatment.
Maintaining soil cover will reduce erosion with the consequent loss of soil fertility, soil compaction, and, eventually, landscape change. (A. Calegari).

One aspect of conventional agriculture is its ability to change the landscape. The destruction of the vegetative cover affects the plants, animals and micro-organisms. Some few profit from the change and turn into pests. However, most organisms are negatively affected and either they disappear completely or their numbers are drastically reduced. With the conservation of soil cover in conservation agriculture a habitat is created for a number of species that feed on pests, which in turn attracts more insects, birds and other animals. The rotation of crops and cover crops restrains the loss of genetic biodiversity, which is favoured with mono-cropping.

Systems, based on high crop residue addition and no tillage, accumulate more carbon in the soil, compared to the loss into the atmosphere resulting from plough-based tillage. During the first years of implementing conservation agriculture the organic matter content of the soil is increased through the decomposition of roots and the contribution of vegetative residues on the surface. This organic material is decomposed slowly, and much of it is incorporated into the soil profile, thus the liberation of carbon to the atmosphere also occurs slowly. In the total balance, carbon is sequestered in the soil, and turns the soil into a net sink of carbon. This could have profound consequences in the fight to reduce green house gas emissions into the atmosphere and thereby help to forestall the calamitous impacts of global warming.

Limitations of conservation agriculture

The most important limitation in all areas where conservation agriculture is practised is the initial lack of knowledge. There is no blueprint available for conservation agriculture, as all agro-ecosystems are different. A particularly important gap is the frequent dearth of information on locally adapted cover crops that produce high amounts of biomass under the prevailing conditions. The success or failure of conservation agriculture depends greatly on the flexibility and creativity of the practitioners and extension and research services of a region. Trial and error, both by official institutes and the farmers themselves, is often the only reliable source of information.

However, as conservation agriculture is gaining momentum rapidly in certain regions, there now exist networks of farmer organizations and groups of interested people who exchange information and experiences on cover crops, tools and equipment and other techniques used in conservation agriculture.
Initial nervousness about switching from plough-based farming to CA can be ameliorated by forming farmer groups to exchange ideas and gain knowledge from more experienced practitioners. (A.J. Bot).

As conservation agriculture partly relies on the use of herbicides, at least during the initial stage of adoption, some people worry that adoption of conservation agriculture will increase herbicide use and that in turn will lead to increased contamination of water by herbicides. In fact experience has shown that herbicide use tends to decline over time as the soil cover practices prevent weed emergence.

Reductions in leaching of pesticides under conservation agriculture might be caused by greater microbial activity degrading pesticides faster or to greater organic matter adsorbing the pesticides.

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