Feed the Future
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Conservation Agriculture in the Field

This post was written by Dr. Adrian Ares, Director of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab (SANREM) at Virginia Tech.

Soil erosion in the PhilippinesFlorence is a farmer on the slopes of Mt. Elgon in eastern Uganda. During a pleasant October afternoon, Florence spoke eloquently about damages from soil erosion and the positive effects of conservation agriculture practices in preventing soil degradation. She referred to decreased crop yields in the higher parts of the local landscape as soils are being swept away by rains and the subsequent sediment accumulations that damage crops in the lowlands. Florence concluded by mentioning that she likes conservation agriculture so much that she intends to implement the same practices in her garden.

SANREM researchers from the University of Wyoming, who have conducted multi-year, carefully designed field trials in the area, can attest to Florence’s views. They found that conservation agriculture systems suffered only about 1 percent of the soil loss found in conventional agriculture systems. Similar evidence has been produced in other SANREM locales, including projects in the Philippines and Ecuador.

I always ask SANREM farmers to speak candidly about conservation agriculture and other approaches that may help in developing sustainable farming systems. A common question we ask is: “What do you like and what you do not like about conservation agriculture?” Florence’s comments were a rewarding reminder of the importance of soil, or more properly, land conservation, a topic that often takes a back seat in public debates (behind other undoubtedly important global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss). John Baker, an agricultural engineer who specializes in no-till seeding, stated that soil degradation is the world's most critical issue, and author Richard Reese has penned an article entitled “Soil erosion may get us before climate change does.” 

It is therefore timely and encouraging that the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of the Soils, using the motto, “Healthy soils for a healthy life.” The logo represents humans nurturing the soil to sustain life on Earth. Numerous events during 2015 will work to increase awareness about the value of soils and the daunting challenges facing conservation efforts. Ultimately, both the United Nations and Florence have reached the same conclusion: soils are vital to life, and we need to do our best to conserve and restore them.