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Conservation Agriculture

Benefits of Conservation Agriculture

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 that improve production efficiency.

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.

Agronomic benefits that improve soil productivity.

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.

Environmental benefits that protect the soil and make agriculture more sustainable:

  • 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.

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 greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and thereby help to forestall the calamitous impacts of global warming.