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Conservation Agriculture for Smallholders in Rainfed Systems: Promise and Performance

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Conservation agriculture (CA) is technically defined as a set of integrated agricultural practices intended to sustain crop productivity and natural resource quality. While most of the land area and crop production under CA is in countries with large, highly mechanized farms, the frontiers of CA are in much ...

Conservation agriculture (CA) is technically defined as a set of integrated agricultural practices intended to sustain crop productivity and natural resource quality. While most of the land area and crop production under CA is in countries with large, highly mechanized farms, the frontiers of CA are in much poorer countries where smallholder farms predominate. These countries typically have high population growth rates, a large percentage of the population engaged in agriculture, small farm size, low levels of mechanization, and low levels of irrigation. Unsurprisingly, these countries also suffer from high rates of poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity, and continued land degradation and conversion of marginal areas to agricultural production. Conservation agriculture holds out the promise of stabilizing and improving both crop productivity and natural resource quality for these farmers, but the performance of CA for both crop production and natural resource quality has been mixed. While the success of CA is dependent upon many factors, including demographic, social, economic, cultural, and political conditions and trends, this set of articles will report on the biophysical conditions and agronomic practices that influence the success or failure of CA in the context of smallholder farmers engaged primarily in rainfed production of staple food crops. Articles will address the key principles of CA – minimum soil disturbance, continuous organic soil cover, and appropriate crop rotation or intercropping – as they affect crop production and natural resource quality. Papers that analyze the key factors influencing success or failure of CA, rather than simply reporting general results, will be favored. Contributors will be encouraged to include results from on-farm trials, especially in comparison to controlled experiments where the potential or promise of CA has been repeatedly demonstrated. While CA has been developed and practiced in a variety of bioclimatic zones, the frontiers of CA are concentrated in tropical, developing countries; thus, we will encourage contributions from these areas, in particular. While CA can include a wide variety of crops, we will focus on widespread food staples, such as maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, and millet, to facilitate cross-study comparisons and evaluations. While the benefits of CA may require a decade or longer to be manifest, we will welcome shorter term multi-year studies that can demonstrate realized benefits or promising trends, especially from on-farm trials.


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