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Africa : Conservation agriculture and sustainable farming - Dr. Spaling

Feb 22, 2016
Dr. Spaling in Kenya
Dr. Spaling in Kenya

What does sustainable farming look like for African farmers facing climate change, water scarcity, and soil erosion? Conservation Agriculture (CA) is one way of improving food security for smallholding farmers facing these realities.

Dr. Harry Spaling has been working with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) to help determine if CA is an environmentally sustainable farming practice in the semi-arid regions of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. He travelled to Kenya in December 2015 to study CA at the farm level.

CA applies the three principles of 1) minimal soil disturbance, 2) soil cover (mulching), and 3) crop rotation to control erosion, increase soil moisture and nutrients, and improve soil health. Although these benefits generally can be expected over time, there are a few challenges along the way. One is that CA is frequently accompanied by the use of pesticides to control weeds and insects. Farmers often lack training in the safe storage and effective application of pesticides, and proper disposal of containers, posing human health and environmental risks. Another challenge is that minimal soil disturbance means reduced tillage, which is typically a labour saving for men. Unfortunately, less tillage usually results in an increased weed response, and weeding is traditionally the work of women who are already overburdened with family and domestic work, and other responsibilities. This raises the question of whether herbicides should be used, in part, to offset manual weeding for women. Soil cover also involves a challenge, especially in dryland areas with minimum grazing resources. Since CA requires crop residue (e.g., stalks) to be left in the field as mulch (soil cover), livestock are deprived of this traditional fodder. Thus, the farmer is faced with a difficult dilemma: feed the soil or feed the cow?

These challenges are a few of the findings reported to a regional workshop on CA in Zimbabwe in February 2016. Overcoming these challenges should result in improved CA with considerable benefits for sustainable farming and improved food security for many African households.

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