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Q&A with Stephen Loss

Q: What were the biggest initial challenges with introducing conservation agriculture?
A: There was a lot of initial skepticism about whether CA would work, not only among farmers but also among researchers. Even many ICARDA staff at the time didn’t believe you could plant a successful crop without first tilling the soil under Syrian conditions, but after 3 or 4 years of trials they gradually came around to believe in the technology.

Q: How did you set about promoting conservation agriculture?
A: First off, we did a lot of field experiments to identify the best agronomic practices with crops that the farmers were already growing. These showed that zero-tillage was productive, profitable, and sustainable. They also showed that zero-tillage and early sowing were the most important practices. Yes, the whole “conservation agriculture” package was the most productive and profitable, but allowing farmers to continue to graze the stubble and to practice their cereal-based rotations did not cancel out the benefits of zero-tillage and early sowing. So we adopted a flexible approach to CA, getting farmers to try zero-tillage seeders with early planting, but otherwise sticking to their systems. We were keen not to change too many things in one go but wanted farmers to take one step at a time.

Q. How did farmers access suitable zero-tillage seeders?
A. Imported zero-tillage seeders were too expensive, heavy, and complicated for most farmers in Syria and Iraq. So we worked with local farmers and farm-machinery manufacturers to develop low-cost, simple zero-tillage seeders based on seeders that the farmers were already using. It took a lot of work, trial and error, but we now have seven Syrian manufacturers of zero-till seeders while in Iraq farmers are focusing on converting existing seeders.

Q. How did you spread the word about CA?

We used a participatory extension approach involving all the stakeholders, including national programs, an NGO, farmers, seeder manufacturers, and others from the private sector. We encouraged groups of farmers to try the zero-till seeders in their own fields at no cost and then share their successes and problems with the group. The fact that the farmers were investing their own seed and fertilizer and using their own tractor meant they had a vested interest in making it work. Once initial farmers were convinced of the benefits of CA, they became promoters to other farmers. And they probably promoted it better than we could have done.

Q: How widespread is the adoption?

A: We started out in the 2006/07 cropping season with only a handful of farmers, but by the 2011/12 cropping season we had more than 500 farmers using zero-tillage seeders on 30,000 hectares in Syria. In Iraq, around 100 farmers were using them on over 10,000 hectares by 2012/13. And about 70–80% of that was “true adoption,” where the farmers owned, rented, or borrowed the seeder, not demonstrations run by the project.

Q: What benefits are the farmers seeing?

A: There are obvious financial benefits in terms of increased yields and reduced cost of fuel and labor. Using our “zero-tillage package,” farmers in Iraq are making up to US$500 per hectare more from their wheat. Farmers in Syria are benefiting to the tune of about US$300 per hectare. Farmers are saving time by because they are no longer plowing their land twice before planting. And the environment is benefiting from reduced soil erosion, greater water use efficiency, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: So what next?

A: There are still many challenges, including how best to incorporate livestock in the zero-tillage system while retaining crop residues, and how to encourage farmers to adopt diverse rotations involving forages, grain legumes and other crops. We also need to work with policymakers to address some issues, such as the fact that subsidies for wheat discourage farmers from growing other crops and the need for incentives for the manufacture and purchase of zero-tillage seeders to encourage uptake. And, of course, there is still a lot more work to do, putting the zero-tillage package in the hands of all farmers in the rest of developing world who could benefit from it.

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Harpenden, United Kingdom, March 9 – ICARDA scientist Mustapha El Bouhssini received a lifetime achievement award from the International Association of Plant Resistance to Insects.