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Spreading the word

In many parts of the world the practice of tilling the soil was entrenched into farming practices over many generations. Today, many farmers, policy-makers, and agricultural experts wrongly believe that tilling the soil before planting the crop is essential to control weeds, pests, and diseases, to release soil nutrients, and to loosen the soil ready for sowing. They overlook the fact that this practice degrades soil, especially in dry areas and marginal lands, reducing organic matter content, breaking down soil structure, promoting the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and increasing the risk of wind and water erosion. It also has little effect on weed control in areas with hot dry summers when weeds do not grow.

Government officials, extension agents, and farmers need to be shown that crops grow just as well, if not better, without tillage, under the conservation agriculture (CA) system. ICARDA has found that the best way to do this is to work with all stakeholders—national partners, extension agents, farmers, manufacturers, and local farming communities—to demonstrate the benefits of CA in their real-life situation with technical support from the research teams. This participatory approach was used successfully in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the USA to promote CA, and in the past five years, has helped spread CA from farmer to farmer and within the communities in a number of countries in West Asia and North Africa.

The first step in such a program is to discuss the CA principles and approach with local stakeholders and demonstrate its application, usually on research stations. Local zero-tillage seeders are then made available to a group of farmers to test in one or two of their own fields free of charge and without any liability for breakdowns. The farmers provide their own seed and fertilizer, and use their own tractor; in this way the farmer takes ownership of the evaluation, and hopefully is proud of the results. If extension staff conduct on-farm demonstrations and provide all inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides) and crop management (sowing, spraying, harvest), the farmer takes less ownership of the process and the whole exercise is less effective.

During the growing season, farmers are then encouraged to inspect each other’s fields and compare the results in fields managed with conservation agriculture with those in fields using existing practices. Problems and successes are discussed as a group. After each cropping season, the group reviews the lessons learned in these farmer trials, which are good starting points to adapt CA to local conditions, develop locally appropriate recommendations of best practice, and generate local capacity to support the new seeding technology.

Rather than promote the whole CA package, which would involve many simultaneous changes to cropping systems and a high risk of something going wrong and causing a poor result, ICARDA staff decided to focus on introducing minimum soil disturbance and early sowing as the first step towards the CA system. Crop residues are an important source of feed for livestock producers in the region, and it was going to be difficult to convince farmers to maintain soil cover. Likewise, crop rotations are dominated by cereals, and grain legume crops are not widely grown.

In Syria and Iraq the approach was effective and news of the success of zero-tillage in farmers’ fields spread rapidly to neighboring villages and towns, and many more farmers quickly stepped forward to try it for themselves. In 2006/07, the first three farmers in Syria planted 15 hectares of crops using zero-tillage approaches. Yields and profits from zero-tillage fields were higher than from conventionally planted crops. Five years later, in the 2011/12 cropping season, 520 farmers planted 30,000 hectares using zero-tillage approaches. The Syrian government were convinced of the benefits of zero-tillage and implemented policies to promote the adoption of zero-tillage seeders as quickly as possible. The uptake in Iraq has been slower, but the area planted to zero-tillage still increased from 52 hectares in 2006/07 to over 10,000 hectares in 2012/13.

ICARDA and its partners have introduced the low-cost seed drill developed in Syria to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In Algeria, the area planted using zero-tillage increased from 1,500 hectares in 2010 to 5,500 hectares in 2011. In 2011, some 5,000 hectares in Morocco and 12,000 hectares in Tunisia in were under zero-tillage, and the areas are increasing rapidly. The next challenge will be to convince farmers of the benefits of soil cover and diverse crop rotation.

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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.