In a keynote speech to 1,000 participants at the IVth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture (CA) in New Delhi, Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, endorsed CA as an essential part of that change.
"The world has no alternative to pursuing Sustainable Crop Production Intensification to meet the growing food and feed demand, to alleviate poverty and to protect its natural resources. Conservation Agriculture is an essential element of that Intensification," Pandey said.
Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that does away with regular ploughing and tillage and promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crops rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity. Introduced some 25 years ago, it is now practiced on 100 million ha of land across the world.
Conventional intensive farming methods had often contributed to environmental damage, resulting in declining rates of agricultural productivity just as the world needs to double its food production to feed nine billion people by 2050, Pandey said.
"In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides," he declared. "But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down."
On current trends, the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is expected to fall to 1.5% between now and 2030 and further to 0.9% between 2030 and 2050, compared with 2.3% per year since 1961.
In developing countries, growth in wheat yields has gone down from about 5% in 1980 to 2% in 2005. Growth in rice yields went down from 3.2% to 1.2% during the same period while maize yields dropped from 3.1% to 1%.
Conservation agriculture could not only help bring yields back up but also deliver several important environmental benefits, Pandey continued. Aside from restoring soil health, it also saved on energy use in agriculture, reducing the footprint of a sector which currently accounts for some 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
It could further mitigate climate change by helping sequester carbon in the soil and also potentially save 1,200 km³ of water a year by 2030 since healthy soil retains more moisture and needs less irrigation.
Only with sustainable intensification of crop production can serious progress be made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger and poverty reduction and on ensuring environmental sustainability, Pandey warned. "We are currently headed in the wrong direction for both of them," he added.
He urged governments, donors and other stakeholders to provide policy and financial support to ensure early, wider uptake of CA. Training, participatory research and building strong farmers' organizations should be accelerated while newly-developed CA equipment should be made widely available and/or manufactured locally.
Delegates to the four-day Congress include farmers, experts, and policy makers from all over the world. The meeting is hosted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). FAO, along with IFAD and other Indian and international organizations are among the sponsors and co-organizers of this largest global gathering of the Conservation Agriculture community.
Conservation agriculture: key facts
* In 1960, the average hectare of arable land, globally, supported 2.4 persons. By 2005 this figure had increased to 4.5 persons per hectare and by 2050 the estimate is that a single hectare of land will need to support between 6.1 and 6.4 people. Obviously each hectare will need to produce much more food.
* But the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is declining instead of rising. Whereas this has averaged 2.3 percent a year since 1961, it is expected to fall to 1.5 percent between now and 2030 and drop further to 0.9 percent between 2030 and 2050.
* One reason for declining productivity growth rates lies in over-reliance by farmers on increasing levels of inputs to raise production, which harms soils and ecosystems and brings diminishing returns.
* Crop yields from Conservation Agriculture are at least equal to those from conventional intensive farming but are more stable and need diminishing applications of chemical inputs where conventional systems often require higher doses to obtain the same results. CA is much more environmentally sustainable.
* By doing away with regular tilling and ploughing, CA also reduces the workload on farmers by some 50 percent on average. It is also cheaper since fewer inputs are used, and mechanized farmers can save up to 70 percent in fuel costs.
* CA's three basic principles - avoiding continuous mechanical soil disturbance, maintaining permanent organic soil cover and ensuring proper crop rotation - result in healthier soil which can produce more under drought and excess water conditions and has the potential to save 1,200 km³ of water a year by 2030.
* It can help mitigate climate change not only by reducing the greenhouse gasses produced by agricultural land use - which accounts for some 30 percent of total emissions - but by helping sequester carbon in soil at an average of some 0.5 tonnes per ha per year. This currently adds up to 54 million tonnes but will increase with the number of ha under CA.
- Related Links:
Sustainable Production Intensification
4th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture
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