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The Climate Crisis is Spurring a Global Shift Toward Conservation Agriculture

From Cambodia to Mozambique, farmers are increasingly turning to conservation agriculture techniques like minimum tillage to bolster climate resilience and increase productivity.

Dany Mert was getting tired. Tilling her modest family farm in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province had always been arduous, but lately, it seemed each harvest yielded less than the last one. She could tell the soil was getting worse. Brittle and depleted. Each year saw more soil erosion, more water runoff, more plant disease, pests and weeds. But without the right training or resources, what could she do? What could any of her fellow smallholder farmers do?

So, like generations of farmers before them, the smallholders of Battambang put their heads down and kept on tilling.

When soil becomes dirt

For hundreds of years, farmers around the world have practiced tillage to prepare seedbeds and control weeds. Broadly, this refers to the plowing of soil using tools such as shovels, hoes and later, tractors. The practice was so ubiquitous that the terms “tilling” and “cultivating” have historically been synonymous.

While it once played an important role in the early expansion of large-scale agriculture, tillage is now widely considered to be a harmful practice, leading to soil erosion, nutrient loss, increased vulnerability to flooding and droughts, and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In countries like Cambodia that are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, tillage and extreme weather combine to create a perfect storm, locking farmers like Mert into a vicious cycle of backbreaking labor, diminishing yields and shrinking income.

Photo Credit: Rithysey Houn, ASMC-Cambodia

“I didn’t realize how harmful tillage was to soil health,” Mert said. “Over time, it was actually destroying the soil health and leading to more severe flooding and erosion.”

Less can be more

To help farmers maintain soil health, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification at Kansas State University, with the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, trains local farmers in Conservation Agriculture techniques. Conservation Agriculture promotes no-tillage, continuous soil cover and crop rotation to improve soil health and biodiversity. While that might sound intuitive, in practice it requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and technology. So, in 2016, Feed the Future and ASMC began developing the requisite tools and training local farmers to operate them.

Photo Credit: ASMC-Cambodia

Over the next five years, the initiative prototyped and deployed a fleet of no-till seeding equipment, as well as a range of ergonomic handheld tools for planting, weeding and other tasks, designed for smaller farms, like Mert’s. ASMC also provided training on other Conservation Agriculture techniques, including a form of crop rotation known as relay cropping. This allows farmers to germinate a second crop while the first is still growing, enabling smallholders to grow a wider variety of vegetables year-round and households to eat more diverse and nutritious foods, all while promoting climate resilience through biodiversity.

A global challenge

8,000 kilometers away in Mozambique, farmers are facing many of the same challenges. Constant plowing leads to widespread soil degradation, exacerbated by frequent droughts. Meanwhile, a reliance on monocultures — the practice of growing one crop at a time — is fueling the rapid spread of an aggressive parasitic weed called Striga asiatica in maize. To address these threats, Feed the Future’s Resilient Agricultural Markets Activity-Beira Corridor (RAMA-BC) activity, implemented by Land O’Lakes Venture37, launched an initiative aimed at replenishing soil health and improving food security in the region.

Photo Credit: Land O’Lakes Venture37

In encouraging the use of alternative techniques like minimum tillage and intercropping — the practice of growing multiple crops in proximity — Feed the Future and Venture37 discovered that farmers were hesitant to adopt these radically different methodologies, the benefits of which take more than a year to appear. To showcase these practices in action, the project established 120 model farms where farmers could see their positive impact firsthand and learn to replicate them.

Since 2017, the program has worked with tens of thousands of smallholder farmers in Mozambique to implement smarter, more climate-resilient cultivation practices. The project also teamed up with local seed companies to produce and market nutritious legumes like lablab beans, jack beans and pigeon peas, specifically for intercropping. To date, farmers have sold more than seven tons of hybridized legume seed — a good first step and tremendous boon to food security and nutrition in the region.

Photo Credit: Land O’Lakes Venture37

In all, the program has remediated some 15,000 hectares of land in the span of just three years. Still, the project’s director, Nic Dexter, is quick to point out that Conservation Agriculture has only been applied to 1 percent of the country’s arable land so far, in contrast to 63 percent in South America and 35 percent in the U.S.

“We have such a long way to go. We’re reaching 20,000 to 30,000 farmers out of 3.8 million farming households,” he said. “As far as Conservation Agriculture goes, we are right at the very beginning.”

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