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What is Conservation Agriculture?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Conservation agriculture, also known as CA, is a form of farming meant to ensure soil health, promote sustainable farming, and prevent the damaging overuse of land. Gaining popularity in the 21st century, conservation agriculture aims to help farmers keep land healthy and productive by maintaining sustainable growing methods. There are several strategies to ensuring the health and continued fertility of land through conservation agriculture, many of which are outlined in guidelines from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

One of the most important principles that forms the backbone of CA is reducing soil damage by discouraging tilling. In the tilling process, the soil is turned over by hand or by machine in an attempt to bring nutrients to the surface as seeds are planted. While in the short term this may benefit the current crops, many scientists suggest that it leads to long- term degradation of the soil, eventually leaving it unusable. By refraining from tilling, organic soil matter may actual benefit as crop fragments form a protective mulch over the soil.

A second major factor in conservation agriculture is the planting of cover crops. When feasible, these crops prevent soil erosion by protecting the top soil from wind, sun, and rain. Cover crops also provide nutrients to the organisms in the soil, which in turn feed the crops. Although the UN guidelines regarding CA acknowledge that some application of pesticides may be necessary for commercial crops, it is also recommended that farmers minimize herbicide use to protect the natural biodiversity of the soil and local environment. By protecting the soil and ensuring a healthy, thriving bio-system, many experts believe that crops are more likely to flourish.

The third principle touted by the UN guidelines for conservation agriculture regards the rotation of crops. Repeatedly planting the same land with the same crop can lead to nutrient depletion in the soil. By cycling crops that need different nutrients through the same field, the soil has time to rest and replenish its nutrient stores.

Some CA organizations also promote reserving a portion of land to encourage the growth of a natural ecosystem. By keeping some land free from agricultural pursuits, the surrounding farmland will have a proper balance of wildlife, insects, and native plants. Although saving land may not be a viable option in many cases, some experts suggest that proper conservation efforts such as natural land reserves will help convert farming operations from environmentally destructive to environmentally aware.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for About Mechanics. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Dec 13, 2014

@clintflint - I saw an excellent TED talk a while ago where they were discussing an answer to this problem. Apparently one of the things that could seriously help to rejuvenate exhausted soil in a lot of places is the right kind of cattle management. At the moment livestock are usually not welcomed on food fields because they do so much damage, but if they were used in the right way, they quickly and easily introduce the nutrients the soil needs to rebalance itself.

By clintflint — On Dec 13, 2014

@pleonasm - In some cases it's a matter of economics, but in others it's a matter of traditions being lost in poverty. In a lot of countries the people who are farming are doing so in the midst of drought and soil exhaustion and are constantly on the brink of starvation, so they need to grow cash crops rather than traditional crops.

Since they aren't growing what their grandparents did they don't know any sophisticated methods for doing so. It's not that easy to find cover crops when you live in a climate that cycles from flood to drought over the course of a few months. Rotation isn't possible if you've only got one tiny field with which to feed your family every year.

I don't know what the answer is, but blaming the people on the ground in these kinds of situations for not practicing conservation agriculture isn't the best response.

By pleonasm — On Dec 12, 2014

I can see how not tilling might come hard for people who grew up on a farm and saw their parents doing it every year, but I would have thought that cover crops and rotation were just common sense. I know that most indigenous and traditional methods of farming include rotation as a matter of course, although it's usually done to reduce pests rather than specifically as conservation agriculture.

And if you don't use cover crops it's immediately obvious that the soil isn't going to just sit there in the wind and the rain. The very fact that these processes need to be encouraged shows how far from basic farming principles you can get in the pursuit of quick economic gain.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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