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Transforming the benefits of conservation agriculture into a pro-CA "manifesto"

March 2014

TONIE PUTTER, Conservation Agriculture Academy, HENDRIK SMITH, Grain SA and DIRK LANGE, CA facilitator

Conservation agriculture (CA) is a way of farming in which producers, as per usual, have to invent, adapt, apply and learn things within the constraints of their own circumstances and situations.

Just as there isn’t a universally applicable blueprint for raising children, so too there aren’t off-the-shelf instruction manuals specifically suited to each and every aspect of each and every farm or producer.

When a producer fixes a tractor or assembles a new implement, he can follow a step by step manual, but when it comes to managing the web of life-processes that are the ecological engines of both the farm ecosystem and the economics that measure profitability, sustainable prosperity and individual satisfaction, farming is a process in which producers themselves predict their own future by inventing and improving it on a daily basis. (You can learn from the way they do it in Australia, but you cannot copy the way they do it…)

While you can manage a tractor in isolation as a vehicle, you cannot manage a farm as anything but a whole system. Everything on your farm is connected to everything else. If you perfect your tillage strategy while neglecting your crop rotations you will quickly learn that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and that the elements of what is considered to be the “weakest”, in itself changes constantly and dynamically.

Under these circumstances all you can do is to keep your focus; that is, to have a few principles clearly in mind when you choose your farming strategy and its tactical actions. If you want to know how sweet the lemon is, you’ll have to suck it to find out. Similarly in CA farming, you only have a few strategic, but common sense guidelines – none of which come with perfect instructions tailor-made for you and your farm.

Thus, it is common sense for you to:

  • Conserve and not liquidate your natural capital (e.g. soil organic matter) and your personal capital (your own knowledge and experience).
  • Protect your accumulating capital assets, e.g. by maintaining maximum organic soil cover by planting cover crops, retaining crop residues and balancing the integration of animal and crop farming.
  • Increase and restock your core capital, e.g. by diversifying the crops used in your rotations.
  • Build the resilience of your farming system, e.g. by practicing integrated pest management (IPM) and always being guided by the common sense fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

If you figure out how to do this on your own, in the company of other smart, natural capital managers and producers such as yourself, some of the rewards you will certainly reap should include the following:

Conservation agriculture

1. Is practical for all kinds of producers
CA has all the attributes of an ‘”appropriate” technology because its principles can be applied at many different levels of farming “sophistication”. For example, the benefits of intercropping maize (Zea mays) with cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), are as attainable under intensive commercial farming as they are in smallholder and subsistence farming. Thus, a smallholder maize producer using only a hand hoe could gain the benefits of (maize x cowpea) intercropping without this requiring any external inputs. Similarly, the many tactical options that implement the principles of CA are amenable to “simple” practical adoption and implementation and could benefit all producers significantly, but indifferent ways. See Photo 1.

2. Increases net farm income
According to Sorrenson (1997 and 1998) and Lange (2005), net farm income increases considerably under CA within a period of ten years, while under conventional tillage (CT), it is calculated to decrease. Farm income increases are expected to be sufficient to pay for the CA equipment within two years. The changes in the returns on capital of CA compared to CT are quite impressive.

3. Yields better returns on investment
If a maize producer cultivates both maize (Zea mays) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) separately as opposed to growing the crops in a CA system of phased intercropping or crop rotation, the producer’s cost outlays are the same, but the returns are not, because separate cropping or monoculture does not benefit from the synergy of intercropping or the crop diversity synergy that is directly translated into better returns on investment. See Photo 2.

4. Immediately increases disposable family capital
If less money has to be spent to produce a given level of (household) food security, the money thereby saved is at the disposable of the family for other purposes. The benefits from increased levels of family capital could have qualitative impacts, such as topping-up children’s school fees and boosting the level of dignity and pride within a family due to a higher economic position in society.

5. Stabilises communities
The loss of income and poverty is a powerful process that puts everybody in the same boat and subjects all to the lowest common denominator of material well-being. When poverty “hits” those who are their brother’s keepers, they are the first line of support and just as reductions in infant mortality impact disproportionally on longevity, so too do small increases in personal material wealth have disproportionate effects on community-level averages.

6. Increases farming systems resilience
Increased systems resilience is probably the single most systemic, long-term benefit of CA; where “resilience” is “the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes”. In CA systems practice, the promotion of diversity avoids the dangers of “placing all one’s eggs in the same basket.” See Photo 3.

While producers know this instinctively, the rest of us should bear in mind that CA systems are complex adaptive systems; i.e. “systems of people and nature in which complexity emerges and re-emerges dynamically and continuously from a small set of critical self-reproducing processes that create and maintain the self-organising and self-reproducing properties of the system”.


7. Diversifies human and animal food flows
Monoculture has well-known disadvantages and vulnerabilities that have to be considered along with its (largely) industrial benefits. Multi-cropping in CA systems, e.g. as in maize/cowpea intercropping, achieves diversity of food supplies while simultaneously producing fertility benefits in the soil. When CA systems include green manure cover crops that can increase animal fodder, the intercrop synergy that multiplies (instead of only adding soil nutrients), and diversifies human food supplies, also leads to better integration of livestock production and crop farming.

8. Minimises labour requirements
The labour-saving benefits of CA translate directly into cash savings that improve household financial security and it frees up time to pursue new activities that can earn additional income. Thus, when CA was compared in Africa to conventional agriculture, CA saved 55% of the labour involved in land preparation; 60% during land clearance and preparation and 70% of the drudgery (mostly done by women) involved in weed control. According to Sorrenson (1997), total annual tractor hours fall quite sharply by the tenth year in CA compared to CT, with consequential savings in tractor costs and permanent farm labour. See Photo 4a and Photo 4b.


9. Alleviates the burden born by women
In most smallholder systems, women bear the brunt of onerous, labour-intensive tasks. While CA reduces this drudgery directly, it also has the beneficial side effect of making more time available for the care of HIV/AIDS orphans. In South Africa – in statistical equivalence with all developing countries where the rural poor depend on agriculture for a living – we have 3 million subsistence farmers among whom 78% are women.

10. Mitigates the impact of HIV/AIDS
Crop diversification through adoption of CA increases the variety of locally grown food supplies and their quality. This improves human nutrition – a key component of HIV/AIDS mitigation. When the other all-round benefits of CA listed in this article act in concert to improve agriculture, e.g. the beneficial impact of CA adoption on the reduced level and energy demand of physical labour, the tight link between culture, economics, household finances and agriculture in smallholder agriculture, assures benefits from CA that are exponentially synergistic in many ways.

11. Increases and protects biodiversity
The negative impact on agro-biodiversity and biodiversity in general of genetically narrow monoculture propped up by pesticide use and inorganic fertiliser, are as well-known as they are broadly lamented. The central “conservation” thrust of CA practice integrates conservation and sustainability in many ways that cannot be matched by industrial agriculture in general. Of all the possible indicators that could be used to measure the resilience of CA systems, biodiversity indices would be the most revealing and consistent in terms of massive quantitative increases and qualitative improvements of system robustness.

12. Is a key driver of sustainability by preserving natural capital
It may be true that agro-ecological agriculture is the last bastion of natural capitalism, because in few sectors of human enterprise is the link between natural capital conservation and management on the one hand and human welfare on the other, as tightly integrated as they are in agro-ecological farming. The C in conservation agriculture has been interpreted, e.g. by Dan Reicosky (2001), as being equivalent to carbon conservation. This C, which also features prominently in capital, also reveals how the management of carbon by adopting sustainable conservation agriculture is the central economic reality of our species as a carbon-based life form. See Photo 5.


image 13. Empowering and nurturing the ecolacy
CA is, as the attributes above unequivocally reveal and corroborate, the source and means of empowering and nurturing the ecolacy (ecological literacy), which is not only the core of extant indigenous and endogenous knowledge required by future rural green economies, but which is also the central human capability that is required by industrial green economies to save our planet from human ignorance-based greediness.

The icing on the cake

Among the 15 so-called wedge-strategies (Pacala & Socolow, 2004), endorsed by the UN Panel on climate change for climate change and adaption, CA is the only option that:

  • Impacts positively on climate change; i.e. creates global public goods, because of and through producers making private profits.
  • Does not require large, upfront public investment, only to yield public good benefits in the distant future.

What this means is that CA farming is an ideal enterprise that qualifies CA producers for participation in carbon trading schemes and to receive payments for the positive ecosystem services delivered by CA.

Therefore you must increase and convert your existing ecological literacy (ecolacy) and experience into hard cash by adopting, adapting, improving and implementing CA.


Lange, D. 2005. Economics and evolution of smallholdings’ conservation agriculture. Mid-Term Experiences, FAO/GTZ/MAG, Asunción (Paraguay).
Pacala, S. & Socolow, R. 2004. Stabilisation wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305, 968-972.
Reicosky, D. 2001. No-till and carbon sequestration. Address as Speaker: No-till on the plains meeting.
Sorrenson, W.J. 1997. Economics of no-tillage and crop rotations. Policy and Investment Implications. FAO Report No: 97/075 ISP-PAR.
Sorrenson, W.J., Duarte, Y.C. & Portillo, J.L. 1998. Economics of no-till compared to conventional systems on small farms. Policy and Investment Implications, San Lorenzo (Paraguay).

Publication: March 2014

Section: Input Overview