The plough is the past: in one of those under-the-radar revolutions that’s somehow failed to filter through to urban people’s perceptions, farmers from Canada to Argentina have discarded 10,000 years of agricultural common sense. It turns out deep ploughing leaves your best soil exposed to the elements, where a hard rain can just wash it away, slowly degrading your land’s ability to sustain yields. Do this long enough and you can literally turn good farmland into desert. It’s just not a smart way to farm.
Hot on the heels of No-Till’s success in North and South America, Conservation Agriculture (CA) has quickly grown into development orthodoxy. The idea is simple but revolutionary: don’t plough, keep crop residues in place as mulch and, in general, organize your farm around the overarching need to prevent top soil erosion.
From FAO to any number of USAID contractors, Development Agencies have taken on the role of Conservation Agriculture evangelists, spreading the good news to the unenlightened peoples of Africa and South Asia. Work less, improve your soil, get better yields: who wouldn’t want to farm that way?
The thing is, when first world methods meet African realities, trouble is never far behind. Issues that just don’t show up in a large mechanized farm in Kansas or Rio Grande do Sul turn out to make a big difference in Malawi and Senegal.
The best compilation on the woes of CA in Africa is in a paper tellingly titled Conservation agriculture and smallholder farming in Africa: The heretics’ view, Ken E. Giller, Ernst Witter, Marc Corbeels and Pablo Tittonell.
So what are the big problems CA faces in Africa?
- One man’s residue is another man’s animal feed. Key to the CA dogma is the idea of using the residue from last year’s harvest as mulch: just leaving it where it falls to provide ground-cover that shields the soil from erosion by rain. This works great in big monoculture farms, where residue is just residue. But in Sub-Saharan Africa you typically find mixed farming systems, with people raising crops alongside animals. Those animals need to eat. In such settings, crop residue is already spoken for: that’s what you feed your cows/goats. In other settings, they’re burnt as fuel. Either way, leftover biomass isn’t perceived as “residue” at all: it’s a key farm asset. If that’s how you farm, just leaving the crop residue to gently rot in the field looks perverse, if not insane.
- The Weeds. Even Conservation Agriculture zealots acknowledge that you tend to get more weed pressure with CA methods than with conventional farming. In big mechanized farms, that’s no sweat: you just spray the bejeezus out of the field with herbicides. But in a smallholder setting in SSA, you gotta pull those weeds up by hand. Whether the labour you save by not having to till is more or less than the extra weeding load depends on local conditions – in some places you end up with more work after you switch to CA. And guess who’s generally stuck doing that extra work? The women. So CA ends up shifting the household division of labour away from men – who usually do more of the tilling – towards women – who often are in charge of weeding.
- The wait. Over the long term, it’s pretty well established that you get better yields with CA than with conventional methods: that’s why Conservation Agriculture is so popular among better resourced commercial farmers. But the long term is really long. As Giller and his team found in reviewing the literature, it can be 10 years before CA yields beat conventional yields in an African setting. For ten long years CA yields can be the same or even lower than conventional yields – an eternity for an edge-of-subsistence smallholder with a notoriously compressed time horizon. And there’s evidence that CA takes longest to establish its superiority in “the clay-poor, structurally weak soils of the (semi-) arid areas” which, as it happens, is a good description of quite a lot of Sub-Saharan Africa
For all these reasons – as well as others detailed in the paper – it turns out to be hard to get farmers in much of SSA to switch over to CA methods permanently.
A number of studies report enthusiastic adoption at first, but often it lasts only for as long as project support does, with farmers quickly reverting to conventional methods once the foreign experts leave. There seem to be some exceptions in Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania, but what researcher’s have never documented is any evidence of Conservation Agriculture going viral: spreading from one farmer to his neighbor via word-of-mouth in the absence of promotion efforts by development agencies.
Listen, if you read this blog you know I enjoy a counterintuitive development riff as much as anyone. But even for me, a wholesale denunciation of CA looks perverse. We know conventional farming degrades soils, we know it’s not sustainable, especially in areas with potential for desertification. We know we have to do better than that. So, to be clear, I absolutely understand the zeal to spread the one technology that’s proven to sustain soil health over time.
But along with missionary zeal comes a certain blindness to on-the-ground realities that quickly comes to look like the soft-imperialism of development bloat. In fact, in terms of my Development Bloat Checklist, the typical CA project scores a 5 out of ten:
- It provides something most people in rich countries have/use, but few people in the recipient community have/use.
- It’s likely to be abandoned once donor funding runs out
- People in the recipient community have to significantly change their habits or reorganize their daily routines to make it work
- If the cost of the project was just handed out to recipients in cash, they certainly wouldn’t spend it on CA
- Its main target is soil health, not people’s incomes.
You’d have to be blind to miss the signs of bloat here.
The really worrying bit, for me, is how Giller et. al. say people in Development Agencies tend to react to their concerns:
We do not doubt that agriculture is possible without tillage, yet when we question whether CA is the best approach, or whether the suitability of CA in a given setting has been established, the reactions are often defensive. It seems as if we assume the role of the heretic – the heathen or unbeliever – who dares to question the doctrine of the established view.
This tendency to treat skeptics as heretics is a deeply worrying sign of the bureaucratization and institutionalization of the Saviour Complex.
And, when it comes down to it, what’s a bigger threat to African livelihoods: soil erosion, or the tyranny of experts?