Conservation Agriculture as Bloat?

It’s now been decades since no-till farming became the first line of defense against top-soil erotion and land fertility degradation, especially in the Western Hemisphere.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

3 thoughts on “Conservation Agriculture as Bloat?”

  1. You’ve got this one badly wrong. Food is money and ca gives more food. Don’t worry about that. There a re different levels and methods of ca. If the ZNFU were let loose on the continent then there would be no starvation and plenty of cash. The history of ca is well known. It is actually indigenous in origin. A commercial farmer in Zimbabwe introduced it on a commercial level. One year of real brutal drought he got plenty of food and everyone came along to see why. It started from there. But really it is older than that.

    But there is a great mystery in the take up of ca.

    Old lady, 78, in a village where the ngo comes selling ca on the usual basis: good yields, water harvesting, soil fertility, seed, bottom dressing, top dressing and lime. She has already heard from other people this is a good method to get food security. But she can’t dig herself. It is sandy soil and completely unreasonable to expect an old lady to do that. But for an able-bodied man or woman of young to middle years it is an easy job. So she hires people to dig and pays them with food. They are hungry. But they dig the holes for some buckets of food in her garden but don’t enter the project and do it in their own field. They plough and get very little compared to her. Then she can’t cultivate so she gets other young couples to cultivate the field for her. They haven’t, won’t and never will enter the project but will do a good job for her cultivating for a few buckets. The old lady then gets her big harvest and keeps some for digging and cultivating for the next year by these young folks. She keeps to the side her own food requirements and sells the rest.

    How can this be explained. If they did it in their own field then they would never be hungry. But they won’t. It is a real mystery.

    Zambia have made this nationally policy. No kidding. They must be a bunch of idiots. But they are not. Why, despite what Giller says, they can see that it works with their own eyes. The stomachs’ of the people who do ca don’t lie. They are not hungry and they have more money because they are selling their food surplus to people who don’t do ca. Also they are willing to do the extra work for that food security and extra cash. A strange analysis is that many of those who need food security and extra cash are not willing to do the work involved but those who were more food secure and had more money are willing to do that extra work or as above get someone else to do it for them.

    I am thinking that Oxfam should have a new advert in the Times of London. It should have the usual picture of an African child with the unusual caption: the child in this photograph is not hungry but the child in the house next door is. Then picture the family digging holes and the house next door just sitting about. Of course it only refers to the able bodied.

    Also don’t go down the road of the idea that their is something unique about Africa’s soil and circumstances that mean it doesn’t work here. There is nothing unique about farming here: most countries are like Ghana, Tanzania or Zambia. So if it works there it will work mostly everywhere on the continent.

    One element you need to consider adding to your blog is the indigenous view of dependency. Search the web on food dependency and Ethiopia and see the government there is trying to get rid of these locusts from the Western world: the food aid organisations. The creation of food dependency has resulted in a massive shortfall in African capital production. If you speak to an African he will tell it like it is. I do sometimes wonder if the opposition to ca is to keep the people in the queues for food aid or some more sinister reason. Liberation of the African small scale farmer from food dependency should be the goal. Food security, food independence and food rights are much bandied about topics. Ca can achieve it.,

    I do accept that there are other ways of improving yields apart from ca. Just better plough based farming with oxen would be one of them. But I have never seen a more productive way, without irrigation, than ca. Power to the people I say. It is in their own hands to do it or not. Those that do will see the benefit of it.

    Lastly. 900 holes. Year 1. 15 buckets. Year 2. Same 900 holes. 24 buckets. Year 1 and 2 were classifed as drought years with this man’s neighbours starving. Year 3. I’ll let you know the yield. But 24 buckets at 900 holes is a lot of food from a small piece of ground when 17,500 are recommended in an hectare. Work it out yourself: it is an astonishing yield.

  2. I am not sure there’s any contradictions in the views expressed on this page. Much of it boils down to the scale one is looking at. It is true that CA has not gone viral but it is equally true that some farmers benefit significantly from CA. I have met farmers who have been using CA for a decade without any outside support and whose soils and yields are significantly better than neighbouring fields. For them it works.

    The question is not if CA works, but rather in what context it works and if it can be adapted/modified/extended to work for more farmers. If we discard interventions that have not gone viral then we throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Like with any agricultural intervention the important thing is to find the niche where it makes sense. That has often been overlooked in the past and CA practices that were not suitable to local conditions have been widely promoted. That is more a failure of CA promoters than of CA. As a result dis-adoption has been documented in for instance Zambia. Fortunately most organisations involved in CA have learned the lesson and now actively engage in adapting CA to the local context and do not enforce one standard way of CA. The above list of “big problems CA face in Africa” are widely acknowledged and being addressed in various ways. Over the last five years many new mechanical devices, planting strategies, weed management strategies etc. have been tested and some of them are picking up with farmers.

    New solutions often get oversold and therefore don’t live up to the expectations. Just look at micro-credit and Jatropha as two recent examples. The same has happened with CA. It is easy to get blinded by averages and aggregate numbers on adoption, impact etc. and think they are complete failures. But the average farmer does not exist. Instead of focusing on high level data, it is often much more fruitful to engage with and learn from the farmers who find the intervention useful.

    There is currently a push to increase the fertilizer consumption among smallholders in Africa. By combining it with CA several of the problems listed above can be tackled: Higher biomass production -> more mulch -> better weed suppression -> less labour for weeding; it also becomes feasible to produce high quality fodder which improve the livestock production and decrease the need for maize stalks and other residues currently used for fodder and maybe most importantly the farmers experience immediate benefits from changing their agricultural system.

    For a recent paper that gives a good overview of the state of CA in Southern Africa see: Conservation agriculture in Southern Africa: Advances in knowledge

    1. Very Interesting reply Flemming and interesting article Francisco. I have been working on and off in Zambia with the ministry of Agriculture and I have often wondered how to get more funding moved in to doing the basic research required to make informed recommendations regarding what styles of CA may work in which areas.

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