Conservation agriculture a matter of urgency

Addressing participants serving agriculture from 10 countries in ­southern Africa during his opening of the Food and Agriculture ­Organisation’s recent conservation agriculture workshop in ­Johannesburg, George Mburathi, FAO representative in SA, said the time had come to implement a large-scale expansion of conservation agriculture in southern Africa if ­sustainable and profitable agriculture is to be achieved in the region.
Issue date 8 June 2007

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It is recognised that agriculture has not received its fair share of investment in many African countries over the past few decades. As a result, between 1975 and 2000 gross national product per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa declined by an average of 0,7% per year compared to an average annual growth of 2,2% over the same period for the rest of the developing world.

The practices of monoculture, less fertiliser application, deforestation and uncontrolled grazing have resulted in the destruction of soil fertility in African countries. Crop yields and soil fertility have declined, while populations dependent on agriculture continue to increase. Ways must be found to produce more food and cash crops while stopping the environmental destruction across Africa. In all cases conservation agriculture (CA) seems to be the main key to achieving greater and more sustainable food production, while protecting and improving soil fertility for future generations.

Objective of CA

The aim of CA is to achieve sustainable and profitable agriculture and improved livelihoods for farmers through the adoption of minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations. The FAO is convinced that CA holds great potential for all sizes of farms and agro-ecological systems, but its adoption is perhaps most urgently required by smallholder farmers, especially those facing labour shortages.
CA provides a way to combine profitable agricultural production while maintaining and improving the soil environment. It has been proven to work in a variety of agro-ecological zones and farming systems. Given the steady decline in soil fertility in Africa over the last 40 years, with the ­resultant loss of productivity, it is time to practise CA as a matter of urgency. This year, with severe droughts in Swaziland, Lesotho, southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and maize fields locally, CA has made the difference between having a crop and not.

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FAO working group

The FAO believes that CA can only work optimally if the different technical areas are considered simultaneously in an integrated way. Therefore, staff from several divisions of the FAO created an informal working group comprising members from Plant Production and Protection, Land and Water, and the Rural Infrastructure and Agro-Industries divisions to address these areas. It is understood that the multidisciplinary nature of CA will always require a rich mix of expertise available from FAO as it works to promote the CA concept worldwide.

CA has been introduced in South Africa, ­Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda over the past 20 years. It results in improved soil conditions, better water-holding capacity of soils and a more sustainable and economical production environment.
Various methods are used to implement CA, from the jab-planters, specialised hand hoes, ox-drawn rippers and planters and large tractor-drawn planters.
 These methods will all be reviewed and appropriate plans made to improve and expand the most successful CA systems.

The time has come to implement a large-scale expansion of CA in ­southern Africa. It will require a review of the ­progress made in implementing the various forms of CA in each country, ­discussions and ­recommendations ­regarding ­improvements in ­implementation, ­identifying ­promising CA initiatives and success stories for further analysis, considering issues of cost-effectiveness, sustainability, ­scaling-up and replication, and compiling a medium- to long-term plan to expand CA throughout southern Africa.

Expected outcomes are that participants will be fully aware of the current levels of progress and success factors required, including the best manual labour, animal- and tractor-drawn equipment available in each country; assist in developing a regional plan of action; contribute to documenting a catalogue of success stories on CA implementation initiatives and how best to obtain official government support for a CA adoption programme; and assist in identifying the initial steps that must be taken to prepare a medium- to long-term implementation plan. – Peter Hittersay

Contact George Mburathi on (012) 354 8540.     |fw