Conservation agriculture – the practice of not plowing farmlands and leaving crop residue in the field for improved soil fertility and water conservation – is used by a majority of farmers in Australia, Brazil and by many in North America and other middle and highincome countries. Research and testing of the approach since the 1960s has confirmed to these countries that conservation agriculture brings optimal production at the best cost. In the world’s drylands agro-ecosystems and the marginal farming areas of low-income countries, conservation agriculture can bring direct benefits to smallholder farmers. The practice has the potential to benefit food security in many drylands agro-ecosystems in Central and West Asia, the Middle East and in North and sub-Saharan Africa.
For low-income countries, today’s paradox for conservation agriculture is that it can benefit their smallholder farmers at minimal additional cost; but this thinking has so far not been recognized by their food security planners and policy makers. Likewise, donors and development partners active in rural development have yet to embrace the practice as a viable approach to improve livelihoods in low-income countries – even as this is how much of their agriculture is managed at home.
The two factors needed for the successful adoption of conservation agriculture for drylands farming are appropriate technologies and a favorable policy environment. Locally-made low-cost seeders are needed and require a local market for repair and technical services to farmers. These markets are taking shape today, and are expected to mature in the medium term.
But probably the most critical factor needed to encourage the uptake of conservation agriculture is a change in perception among decision makers in low-income countries. For conservation agriculture to spread, ministry officials, extension services and influential large-scale farmers in these regions need to be engaged and informed of the benefits. ICARDA’s work over the past five years in Syria and Iraq, has shown that as a small number of farmers try the approach, news of the results can rapidly travel to neighboring villages and towns. This report contains examples, thinking and evidence. Its goal is to help policy makers and development partners better appreciate how conservation agriculture works, so they can formulate programs to evaluate how it can contribute to their rural development and food security goals, paving the way for its adoption in a national agricultural strategy.