Sustainable crop production intensification - The adoption of conservation agriculture worldwide

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About the article
Author Rolf Derpsch and Theodor Friedrich

Rolf Derpsch was born in Chile and has the Chilean and the German nationality. He studied agronomy in Chile, and obtained a M.Sc. degree from the University of Reading, UK. He has worked for GTZ, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation from 1966 to 2001. He has a 15 year working experience in Conservation Agriculture in Brazil and 16 years in Paraguay. Since September 2001 he is working as Freelance Consultant. He was among the first to research the No-tillage technology in Brazil and Latin America in 1971. He has been a consultant to FAO in several countries. The countries he has working experience include: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Honduras, North Korea, Paraguay, Somalia, South Africa, and Tajikistan. He has been a key speaker to many international conferences.

Theodor Friedrich is a leader in cover cropping strategies in Europe and a farmer from France who, in 1999, founded an organization called TCS that promotes the use of cover crops and reduced tillage practices. Currently, there are over 600 farmer members. They host dozens of cover crop field days and publish a monthly magazine featuring research results and success stories. Frederic has been a world leader in the concept of using multiple species of cover crops in order to add diversity to an agriculture cropping system.


While the world is projected to need a major increase in crop production to feed a population of around 9 billion people in 2050 when compared to 20001, it must do so against a challenging backdrop: The decreasing availability of and competition for land and water (including from other land uses such as production of biofuels, urbanization and industrial development); poor soil fertility; access to fertiliser, and improved varieties (developed using conventional and modern plant breeding tools) and quality seeds; and climate change. Previous attempts at managed intensification (such as the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) have been a qualified success. In some cases it is now recognised that the yield increases achieved – through increased use of fertilisers, high yielding varieties, irrigation, pesticides and intensive tillage - were made at the expense of the environment or in ways which were otherwise unsustainable. Also some smaller-scale farmers were unable to participate or reap the rewards of scale. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2009) highlighted the need for policies that value, restore and protect ecosystem services, and addresses the needs of the world’s small-scale and family farmers. It emphasized the need for a change in paradigm to encourage increased adoption of sustainable ecological agriculture and food systems. No-tillage systems, such as Conservation Agriculture, hold promise to address these challenges. </p>

In this paper the worldwide spread and adoption of No-tillage/Conservation Agriculture is analyzed. In 1973/74 the system was used only on 2.8 million ha worldwide. In 1999 no-tillage, was adopted on about 45 million ha world wide (Derpsch, 2001), growing to 72 million ha in 2003 (Benites, et al., 2003) and to 117 million ha by 2010 (FAO 2010a). Fastest adoption rates have been experienced in South America where some countries are using no-tillage on more than 70% of the total cultivated area. Opposite to countries like the USA where often fields under no-tillage are tilled every now and then, more than two thirds of no-tillage practiced in South America is permanently under this system, in other words once started, the soil is never tilled again. The adoption of no-tillage at present on 117 million ha shows the great adaptability of the system to all kinds of climates, soils and cropping conditions. No-tillage is now being practiced from the artic circle over the tropics to about 50º latitude south, from sea level to 3000 m altitude, from extremely rainy areas with 2500 mm a year to extremely dry conditions with 250 mm a year. The wide recognition as a truly sustainable farming system should ensure the growth of this technology to areas where adoption is still low as soon as the barriers for its adoption have been overcome. The widespread adoption also shows that no-tillage can not any more be considered a temporary fashion, instead the system has established itself as a technology that can no longer be ignored by scientists, universities, extension workers, farmers as well as machine manufacturers and politicians.


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