Posts Tagged ‘conservation agriculture’

Tailored targeting needed: new study assesses the impacts of sustainable intensification on farmers in the Indo-Gangetic Plains

By Marcia MacNeil

A farmer at work in a wheat field in the Indian state of Bihar. Photo: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

Sustainable cropping system intensification – for example, planting legumes in the off season – is a well-documented conservation agriculture (CA) agronomic practice in wheat-rice cropping systems.  While the benefits of this practice for environmentally sustainable production are clear – including providing near-permanent soil cover and improving soil quality while yielding an additional protein-rich crop for consumption or sale – the implications for individual smallholder farmers have been less well examined.

Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and partner organizations recently studied how rearranging cropping patterns would affect five different types of smallholder farmers in the rural state of Bihar, in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India.

The results, published in Farm-level exploration of economic and environmental impacts of sustainable intensification of rice-wheat cropping systems in the Eastern Indo-Gangetic plains in the European Journal of Agronomy found that the economic benefits and ease of rearranging cropping systems differ widely by farm type.

The Indo-Gangetic Plains are an important agricultural area for cereal production in India, with rice-wheat cropping systems covering around 10.3 million hectares. However, continuous intensive cultivation of these crops has led to soil degradation and over-use of limited freshwater resources. Farmers in the rural state of Bihar are particularly vulnerable to climate change-related heat, drought and flood risks, and face a growing challenge to maintain their crop productivity while protecting natural resources.

The study authors, including CIMMYT scientists ML Jat and Santiago Lopez-Ridaura, chose 5 Bihar farmer types to evaluate: the Farm Manager, with the largest farm and most family members to provide labor; the Wealthy Farmer, with large land and livestock holdings; the Arable Farmer with no livestock and a mango orchard as a main source of income; the Small Farmer, with less than 1 hectare of land, 3 animals and 4 family members, and the Marginal Farmer with only 1/3 hectare of land, completely cultivated with wheat and rice, and 10 family members.

“Using an optimization model, we measured the trade-offs between the environmental benefits and the profitability of intercropping with mung bean for these different types of farmers,” said Lopez-Ridaura. “We found that these trade-offs can be extensive.”

On the positive side, the study authors found that intercropping with mung bean had allowed all five farmers to save water, increase soil organic matter content and decrease nitrogen losses on their farms.

“The environmental benefits of intercropping are undeniable,” said WUR’s Jeroen Groot, co-author of the study. “However, we found that making the switch to sustainable cropping intensification was not equally financially beneficial for all farm types.”

The Farm Manager and Wealthy Farmer had more options to favorably rearrange their farms, resulting in the best outcome on multiple objectives. The Arable Farmer, Small Farmer and Marginal Farmer showed considerably smaller potential to improve the overall performance of the farm.for m

“In practical terms, our results suggest that policies and programs for sustainable intensification of cereal-based cropping systems in Bihar should use strategies that are targeted by farm type,” said Jat.

“A participatory approach to developing these strategies, including input from farmers, will improve understanding of the challenges and opportunities in targeting investments for sustainable farming practices.”

Read the full article here.

This research was conducted by CIMMYT, Wageningen University & Research, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).  The research is a product of CIMMYT Academy through a student research project with Wageningen University and supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Wheat Agri-food Systems (WHEAT); the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR); and all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

An environmental look at WHEAT research

As we recognize the 50th year of Earth Day, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) looks back on recent impactful research to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources.

WHEAT and its lead research partner, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are proud of our research to move the needle on improving the environmental sustainability of farming and food production.

Plant resistance to insects

The 24th biannual session of the International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop, held at CIMMYT headquarters this year, featured innovative insect resistance solutions to the global threat of crop pests. Their goal: to reduce the use of pesticides.

Conservation agriculture

WHEAT and CIMMYT research has consistently shown the wide-ranging benefits of conservation agriculture practices such as zero tillage, crop rotation and soil cover – for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmer incomes and climate action. This research helps governments in South Asia — a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability – develop policies to prioritize and encourage these techniques.

Appropriate fertilizer use

Research by WHEAT scientist Tek Sapkota has identified the optimum rates of nitrogen fertilizer application for rice and wheat in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India — minimizing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining crop productivity.

Reducing residue burning

A  study  by a global team including WHEAT scientist ML Jat shows that replacing rice residue burning with no-till farming practices raises farmers’ profits, cuts farm-related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78%, and lowers the choking air pollution that plagues the region each winter. These findings support Indian government policies including a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization such as the Happy Seeder.

Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. With the same consciousness, we at WHEAT continue to work on research solutions to sustainably increase the production of nutritious wheat for improved livelihoods throughout the world.

Conservation agriculture key in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals

This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

An international team of scientists has provided a sweeping new analysis of the benefits of conservation agriculture for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmers’ incomes and climate action across a variety of cropping systems and environments in South Asia.

The analysis, published today in Nature Sustainability, is the first of its kind to synthesize existing studies on conservation agriculture in South Asia and allows policy makers to prioritize where and which cropping systems to deploy conservation agriculture techniques. The study uses data from over 9,500 site-year comparisons across South Asia.

According to M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the study, conservation agriculture also offers positive contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, climate action and clean water.

“Conservation agriculture is going to be key to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” echoed JK Ladha, adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study.

Scientists from CIMMYT, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the University of California, Davis, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Cornell University looked at a variety of agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators — including crop yields, water use efficiency, economic return, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential — and compared how they correlated with conservation agriculture conditions in smallholder farms and field stations across South Asia.

Results and impact on policy

Researchers found that many conservation agriculture practices had significant benefits for agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators, whether implemented separately or together. Zero tillage with residue retention, for example, had a mean yield advantage of around 6%, provided farmers almost 25% more income, and increased water use efficiency by about 13% compared to conventional agricultural practices. This combination of practices also was shown to cut global warming potential by up to 33%.

This comes as good news for national governments in South Asia, which have been actively promoting conservation agriculture to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources. South Asian agriculture is known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability.

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia will be impacted most by climate change and natural resource degradation,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR and Secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE). “Protecting our natural resources for future generations while producing enough quality food to feed everyone is our top priority.”

“ICAR, in collaboration with CIMMYT and other stakeholders, has been working intensively over the past decades to develop and deploy conservation agriculture in India. The country has been very successful in addressing residue burning and air pollution issues using conservation agriculture principles,” he added.

With the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion, demand for cereals is expected to grow by about 43% between 2010 and 2050. This presents a major challenge for food producers who need to produce more while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment and other natural resources.

“The collaborative effort behind this study epitomizes how researchers, policy-makers, and development practitioners can and should work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing agricultural development, not only in South Asia but worldwide,” said Jon Hellin, leader of the Sustainable Impact Platform at IRRI.

In new hostile climate, drought-tolerant crops, systems needed on unprecedented scale

This op-ed by Martin Kropff, Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, was originally published by SciDevNet.

Last year, droughts devastated staple food crops across the developing world, cutting production by about half in some countries. A stream of reports from Central America, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as the Asia-Pacific region painted a grim picture of suffering and upheaval.

Poor harvests subjected tens of millions to chronic hunger, prompting various governments to declare states of emergency. In Central America, survey results, including some from the US government, cited climate-induced food shortages as the main reason for emigration from drought-hit areas.

Extreme weather, with its appalling consequences, demands an extraordinary response. Redoubled efforts must focus on building resilience into the developing world´s major food systems.

Fortunately, agricultural science has already provided a wide range of solutions and continues to generate more.

Conservation agriculture and drought-tolerant crops

New technologies from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) suggest how developing countries can work toward a better future.

Drought-tolerant cereals show promise for helping stabilise maize and wheat production. Through many years of conventional plant breeding, researchers have developed more than 160 maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa that yield 25-30 percent more than farmers’ standard varieties under drought, while performing at least equal to these under normal rainfall.

According to a study in Zimbabwe, farmers growing the drought-tolerant maize harvested up to 600 kilograms more grain per hectare in drought years – enough to feed a family of six for nine months. The improved varieties are already grown on 2.5 million hectares, benefitting around 54 million people. Researchers are also poised to develop wheat lines with tolerance to drought and heat, having identified genes for these traits though cutting-edge collaborative science.

“Extreme weather, with its appalling consequences, demands an extraordinary response. Fortunately, agricultural science has already provided a wide range of solutions and continues to generate more.”

Martin Kropff, director general, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

To provide maximum benefits, drought-tolerant crop varieties need to form part of smart farming systems that capture and conserve moisture. One such system – conservation agriculture – combines diverse crops with reduced or no ploughing, and the practice of leaving stalks and other crop residues on the ground after harvest. Already widely applied in South America´s Southern Cone, this system has also made inroads in the predominant rice-wheat system of South Asia´s Indo-Gangetic Plain, a major breadbasket for the region. Conservation agriculture is being widely promoted in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico and elsewhere.

Globally, around 80 per cent of food production depends on increasingly erratic rainfall. To ensure better water supplies, many farmers have purchased their own small pumps for irrigation, often using water from aquifers underground.  One drawback to this practice is that it can lead to groundwater depletion, which is already a serious problem in Northwest India, for example. In searching for solutions, researchers there have recently shown how farmers can grow just as much rice and wheat using only about half the water normally needed, through conservation agriculture combined with the use of a drip irrigation system that delivers just the right amount of water, plus fertiliser to crop roots through underground pipes.

Scaling-up drought solutions

The challenge now is to mainstream the growing portfolio of drought solutions – a task demanding not only technical acumen, but institutional vision.
Partnerships between private seed companies and public crop breeding programs, for example, played a vital role in getting drought-tolerant maize into farmers’ fields. But the people benefitting from this innovation today still constitute only a fraction of the 300 million Africans whose diets depend on maize. Clearly, such partnerships must be expanded.

Innovation platforms are rapidly becoming the tool of choice for refining and scaling out more complicated innovations, such as conservation agriculture. Transitioning to new production practices can be a daunting experience for farmers, especially smallholders. By bringing together networks of farmers, extension specialists, researchers, private companies and policymakers, innovation platforms offer the knowledge, services and products needed for change.

In order for improved technologies to have the desired effect, government and partner organisations must get their policies and decisions right. Recent research in Bangladesh, for example, has identified new policy measures for enhancing the efficiency of irrigation services. In addition, organisations must base their decisions and planning before and during droughts on information from new systems that use remote sensing and climate data analysis for drought monitoring and early warning.

Science-based climate projections tell us that drought will become even worse in the decades ahead. Only by implementing drought solutions on an unprecedented scale, will countries be able to avoid a future that leaves millions of people at the mercy of a hostile climate.

Many conditions, same yield: Durum wheat selected for zero tillage performs equally under conventional farming practices

Researchers demonstrate that CIMMYT’s durum wheat lines can be grown, bred, and selected under zero tillage or conventional tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield

CIMMYT’s multi-crop, multi-use zero tillage seeder at work on a long-term conservation agriculture (CA) trial plot at the center’s headquarters at El Batán, Mexico. Crop residues, which are retained on the soil surface in CA, are visible in the foreground.
Photo credit: CIMMYT.

New research published in Field Crops Research by scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) responds to the question of whether wheat varieties need to be adapted to zero tillage conditions.

With 33% of global soils already degraded, agricultural techniques like zero tillage – growing crops without disturbing the soil with activities like plowing – in combination with crop residue retention, are being considered to help protect soils and prevent further degradation. Research has shown that zero tillage with crop residue retention can reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure and water retention, leading to increased water use efficiency of the system. Zero tillage has also been shown to be the most environmentally friendly among different tillage techniques.

While CIMMYT promotes conservation agriculture, of which zero tillage is a component, many farmers who use CIMMYT wheat varieties still use some form of tillage. As farmers adopt conservation agriculture principles in their production systems, we need to be sure that the improved varieties breeders develop and release to farmers can perform equally well in zero tillage as in conventional tillage environments.

The aim of the study was to find out whether breeding wheat lines in a conservation agriculture environment had an effect on their adaptability to one tillage system or another, and whether separate breading streams would be required for each tillage system.

The scientists conducted parallel early generation selection in sixteen populations from the breeding program. The best plants were selected in parallel under conventional and zero-till conditions, until 234 and 250 fixed lines, were obtained.  They then grew all 484 wheat lines over the course of three seasons near Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, under three different environments, — zero tillage, conventional tillage, and conventional tillage with reduced irrigation – and tested them for yield and growth traits. 

The authors found that yields were better under zero tillage than conventional tillage for all wheat lines, regardless of how they had been bred and selected, as this condition provided longer water availability between irrigations and mitigated inter-irrigation water stress. 

The main result was that selection environment, zero-till versus conventional till, did not produce lines with specific adaptation to either conditions, nor did it negatively impact the results of the breeding program for traits such as plant height, tolerance to lodging and earliness.

One trait which was slightly affected by selection under zero-till was early vigor – the speed at which crops grow during the earliest stage of growth. Early vigor is a useful adaptive trait in conservation agriculture because it allows the crop to cope with high crop residue loads – materials left on the ground such as leaves, stems and seed pods – and can improve yield through rapid development of maximum leaf area in dry environments. Results showed that varieties selected under zero tillage showed slightly increased early vigor which means that selection under zero tillage may drive a breeding program towards the generalization of this useful attribute.

The findings demonstrate that CIMMYT’s durum wheat lines, traditionally bred for wide-adaptation, can be grown, bred, and selected under either tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield performance. This is yet another clear demonstration that breeding for wide adaptation, a decades-long tradition within CIMMYT’s wheat improvement effort, is a suitable strategy to produce varieties that are competitive in a wide range of production systems. The findings represent a major result for wheat breeders at CIMMYT and beyond, with the authors concluding that it is not necessary to have separate breeding programs to address the varietal needs of either tillage systems.

This work was implemented by CIMMYT as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

Read more results and recommendations in the study, “Durum wheat selection under zero tillage increases early vigor and is neutral to yield” in Field Crops Research, November 2019.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fcr.2019.107675