Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Conservation Agriculture: Why is Adoption not Increasing as Expected?

This post was written by Dinesh Panday, a YPARD member, and a Nepal Representative and Communications Officer at YPARD’s Asia and Pacific Coordination Unit. He is also a PhD student (soil science) at the University of Missouri- Columbia. You can contact him at ypardnepal[at]gmail.com. 

Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors in Nepal. Agricultural activities account for about one-third of GDP, and provide a livelihood for almost 70 percent of the population.

However, much of the agricultural land in Nepal is marginal: about half of agricultural land is located on slopes, and this can result in high soil losses—from 2.7 to 8.2 tons per hectare. Agricultural labor scarcity (due to high rates of urban and out-migration), dependence on rain-fed ecologies (due to a shortage of irrigation infrastructure), inappropriate use of fertilizers, increasing production costs, and declining productivity are the major challenges for cropping systems. Furthermore, climate change has brought additional challenges to soil and water resources.

Conservation Agriculture 

Conservation agriculture (CA) is considered a suitable technique for soil erosion control, enhancing productivity, and often times boosting economic benefits. According to the FAO, CA refers to “an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security, while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment.” 

CA revolves around three principles: no-till (or minimal soil disturbance), soil cover, and crop rotation. Generally, CA is being increasingly promoted in Africa, Asia and Europe because it addresses missing components in the intensive tillage-based approach to agriculture; however, to date, only about 11 percent of the world's arable and permanent cropland area is farmed under CA, and only 3 percent in Asia

In particular, minimum or no tillage has been recommended for soils of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region due to the resulting reduced cost of cultivation, increased retention of soil water, and for the protection/replenishment of soil organic carbon (SOC). 

Some Initiatives in Nepal

In Nepal, CA was introduced sometime around 1996-97. The Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), the country’s leading agricultural research body, and the Department of Agriculture (DOA), a leader in agricultural extension, are working to promote CA through different programs at national, regional and district levels. Similarly, the Feed the Future initiative, which is active in 20 hill and terai (plain area) districts, is incorporating best practices through sustainable intensification of cereal systems using CA and other resource-conserving technologies. 

CSISA Nepal has been promoting CA-based technologies for specific crops (maize, wheat, lentil and rice) in the eastern and mid terai (read more about CSISA here and here). IFAD and  CIMMYT are also involved in testing and promoting CA technologies in maize-based systems in the western terai and adjoining hills of Nepal. 

Crop diversification in agricultural landscape in terai region of Nepal, raising rice, sponge gourd and maize in same field. Photo credit: Dinesh Panday.

After four years of research, the Conservation Agricultural Production System (CAPS) showed an increase in maize production due to soil conservation and the restoration of soil fertility through legume integration. Another study from CIMMYT in the Nawalparasi district has shown that hybrid maize can be more advantageous in a low-input production environment than open pollination varieties.

Challenges

If CA is effective, then a key question to ask would be: Why is CA not spreading more rapidly? It might be because CA is a knowledge-intensive and a complex system to learn and implement. People hold different, sometimes contradictory, beliefs about CA. For instance, CA can save money, but does it create more or less weeds in the field? Farmers may practice early planting, with benefits ranging from less water runoff, improved quality of soil, and higher resistance to drought. But, they do not always get a good price in the market for what they produce.

Even larger areas in the hills and mountains—where crop ecologies are entirely different than the terai are not yet being explored for CA. Leaving crop residues on the field as mulch eliminates an important source of animal fodder in areas where livestock are important in farm economies. Over the centuries, tillage has been considered a good farming practice and is taught as a fundamental agricultural operation in formal agricultural studies and training programs. Changing this behavior requires a shift in a farmer’s mindset, not often found overnight.

As such, the current problems that CA adoption is facing are varied. Such problems include the need for increasing understanding among stakeholders, the need for crop diversification for better nutrition, and limited area under CA per farmer due to lack of access to information, land fragmentation, and the conversion of agricultural lands into other uses. Additionally, there is less governmental interest in financially supporting and promoting CA. One study showed that the use of farm yard manure (FYM) and compost is the most difficult task in practicing CA in Nepal

Ways Forward

CA is not only about bigger yields through technologies or improved farming practices, but also relates to human development by taking a holistic approach to agriculture. To promote CA, we need to generate knowledge through onsite research and wide-scale verification in farmer’s field. Similarly, the replication of CA success stories among North and South American countries can be taken into consideration, as the awareness and adoption of CA in these countries is increasing.

Gender constraints are another major factor that we need to consider in CA promotion and adoption. Farm management decisions are often made by men in Nepal, so we need to invite more women to trainings and host more gender-specific trainings, and be aware of the potential effects of CA adoption on women’s time and labor (since there is a trend toward the feminization of agriculture in Nepal).

We need to set up long-term strategies that promote better nutrition, crop diversification, environmental sustainability and higher productivity for smallholder farmers by developing effective linkages with a range of stakeholders (including private manufacturers, agrovets, and development officials) in order to make Nepal’s agricultural systems more sustainable. There is a strong need for a working group to advocate for CA and its three pillars (IAD model), and to work with farmers, scientists and private actors to enhance to better share information and results in order to scale up adoption.