Conservation agriculture has much in common with regenerative agriculture, which we covered earlier in our breakdown of the Drawdown Organization’s top 100 solutions to reverse climate change. The primary reason why conservation agriculture is five spots lower on Drawdown’s rankings—#16 to regenerative agriculture’s position at #11—is that conservation agriculture allows for the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides whereas regenerative agriculture doesn’t.
While conservation agriculture is, as a result, slightly less beneficial, using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers results in a much broader and wider reach than regenerative agriculture. For example, Drawdown envisions that conservation agriculture could be implemented on 1 billion acres globally by 2035, a full 15 years before it sees regenerative agricultural land reaching that goal. The anticipated upfront investment required is also lower: $38 billion compared to $57 billion.
So let’s learn more about what the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture considers “the only ecological and regenerative agricultural model” that can merge food security, profitability, and environmental protection.
The Three Tenets of Conservation Agriculture
The United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines conservation agriculture (CA) as “a farming system that can prevent losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands.”
CA accomplishes these goals by adhering to three central principles:
- Minimizing soil disturbance through no- or low-till practices like direct planting or seeding (planting directly into untilled soil). If any tillage is necessary, it’s only done on narrow strips of land. These practices can be done manually or with machinery.
- Creating permanent soil cover with crop residues and live mulches. These materials enrich the existing soil while protecting it against erosion from precipitation and limiting weed growth.
- Rotating and/or combining crops (known as intercropping). Species diversification using at least 3 different crops reduces pests and diseases, thus improving yields and requiring less water.
Examples of Conservation Agriculture in Practice
One of the most successful recent examples of CA in practice is the introduction of likoti, which means “holes” in the Sesotho language, in the African nation of Lesotho. Developed in the early 2000s, likoti involves planting small amounts of seed and fertilizer in 75cm2 grids, covering them with mulches, and rotating or combining crops. These grids are then utilized the following year with no-tilling in between plantings.
While originally used to plant maize and legumes, farmers have also used it to plant potatoes, tomatoes, sorghum, and sunflowers. Using likoti, they have increased their yields even as annual rainfall has fallen dramatically over the last century.
Harvests achieved through CA are thus more resilient than those reaped using conventional agriculture. As the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) notes, CA works particularly well in drier areas. In Iraq, for example, yields were double those produced by conventional agriculture.
In another example of successful CA implementation, farmers in the Punjab province of Pakistan have seen yields improve by adopting wiser fertilizer applications. They use a leaf color chart created by the Rice-Wheat Consortium for the Indo-Gangetic Plains to identify the best times to fertilize their rice, reducing use by 25% without affecting yield. It worked so well that the farmers adapted the chart for wheat. They also rotate rice with other crops, such as berseem clover, thereby improving soil fertility and preventing weed growth. The poor crop yields that had plagued the province from 2003-07 were successfully reversed by 2009, as one of every three farmers adopted at least one CA practice.
Closer to home, David Brandt’s Ohio farm is a great example of how CA can improve yields while being profitable. For 44 years, Brandt has practiced no-till farming using only 1 quart of Roundup per acre. His yearly costs per acre are $320, while his yield is 180 bushels. A neighboring farm that uses conventional tilling only produces 100 bushels yearly, despite using five times as much herbicide at a cost of $500 per acre.
How You Can Support Conservation Agriculture
Besides directly patronizing farms like David Brandt’s Walnut Creek Seeds or Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota—or consulting this list of CA groups compiled by Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences—you can consider donating to any of these 20 organizations that focus on sustainable agriculture.
You can even consider steering any investments you make to sustainable agriculture companies or initiatives. Major funds such as Calvert and Trillium have started to include sustainable agriculture in their socially responsible investment funds. What’s good for the planet, it turns out, can also be good not only for farmers’ bottom line but also your own.