Conservation Agriculture in Maize- and Wheat-Based Systems in the (Sub)tropics: Lessons from Adaptation Initiatives in South Asia, Mexico, and Southern Africa
Olaf Erenstein, Ken Sayre, Patrick Wall, Jon Hellin and John Dixon
Conservation agriculture’s underlying principles—minimal soil disturbance, soil cover and crop rotation—are increasingly recognized as essential for sustainable agriculture. This article summarizes three contrasting cases of adapting conservation agriculture (CA) to smallholder conditions in the (sub) tropics: a) irrigated rice-wheat systems in South Asia; b) rainfed maize/wheat and irrigated wheat systems in Mexico; and c) rainfed maize in Southern Africa. In the South Asia case, farm surveys show rapid and widespread adoption of zero tillage wheat—primarily due to a substantial cost saving (15–16%). In the other cases, uptake so far has been limited—although long-term trials show continuously higher and more stable yields both for maize and wheat. Under marginal conditions CA can generate substantial yield increases—averaging some 50% over conventional smallholder maize yields of 1 ton per ha over 6 years in on-farm trails in Southern Africa. The diverse experiences attest to the wide adaptability of CA systems, which can generate clear economic and potentially enormous environmental benefits. The case studies and wider literature however also reiterate the substantial challenges in terms of targeting, adapting and adopting CA—particularly for smallholders in the (sub)tropics. CA systems are best developed in situ through a multi-stakeholder adaptive learning process to create viable CA-based options that are technically sound, economically attractive, and socially acceptable.