30 November 2023
Growing climate resilience from the soil up
Published online 2 November 2022
Conservation agriculture offers agronomical, environmental and socio-economic benefits. But uptake in the MENA region has been slowed by constraints.
Soils across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are experiencing rapid degradation, erosion and reduction in fertility. Crop yields are also declining, threatening the region’s fragile food security, while climate change is projected to have significant impacts on the region. These factors and others underscore the urgency that the region adopts more sustainable agricultural approaches.
With Egypt hosting the COP27 Climate Change Summit this month, regional researchers are investigating a shift to conservation agriculture, which aims to improve soil health, food security and climate adaptation, and could address major challenges limiting agricultural production in the MENA region.
“Several studies on conservation agriculture in the MENA region have shown that it is a potential alternative, climate-resilient technology for drylands compared to the current conventionally tilled system,” says Mina Devkota-Wasti, an agronomist with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Morocco.
The two approaches compared
Conservation agriculture strives to achieve consistently high production levels and acceptable profits for farmers while regenerating soils and protecting the environment. The approach, based on the integrated management of soil and water resources, is guided by three core principles: no or minimal soil disturbance through precise seed placement by specialized planting machinery known as no-till seeders; permanent soil cover from crop residues to protect the soil during fallow periods; and crop diversification, through varied crop sequences and associations. Combined, these practices enhance biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the surface, contributing to improved and sustained crop production.
The approach contrasts with conventional tillage agriculture, which disturbs the soil through ploughing and harrowing and incorporates or buries most crop residues, leaving the soil bare and susceptible to wind and water erosion. The conventional system is associated with monocropping, the practice of planting the same crop year after year, which increases the risk of diseases and pests and depletes the soil of nutrients, making it less productive over time.
Since the conservation approach was introduced in Morocco 40 years ago, it has slowly expanded in several MENA countries. Uptake has been uneven, with the amount of land managed this way varying from 100 hectares (ha) in Jordan, 12,000ha in Morocco, and 20,000ha each in Iraq and Syria. According to estimates, there is significant room for growth: between 25 to 40% of the 53 million hectares of total arable land in the MENA region is thought to be suitable for conservation agriculture.
Research demonstrates many associated benefits when conservation agriculture practices are implemented. In the short-term, it reduces soil water evaporation and allows farmers to sow early, saving time and reducing fuel and labour costs. As time passes, environmental benefits accrue: decreased water run-off, increased water infiltration and reduced soil erosion. Over the long term, conservation agriculture increases soil organic matter and nutrient supply, improves soil quality, enhances aquifer recharge and stabilises crop yields—all of which strengthen food security and climate resilience.
Research results in MENA
To date, conservation agricultural experiments in the region have yielded promising results.
A field experiment in Merchouch, Morocco, between 2015 and 2019 compared conservation agriculture with conventional tillage agriculture, finding it led to greater yield stability and increased yields of four major food crops—wheat by 43%, chickpea by 19%, lentil by 11% and barley by 8%—while reducing production costs by 14.5%.
In Syria, where conservation agriculture efforts were widespread before the civil war, a four-year field experiment at ICARDA’s former Aleppo research station reported yield increases between 12% and 20% in wheat, lentil, barley and chickpea, which researchers ascribed to improved soil quality and moisture.
Overall, studies from MENA found that crop productivity under conservation agriculture increases by 20-120% over time compared to conventional tillage agriculture due to improved soil conditions and better crop rotations.
“All the evidence indicates that conservation agriculture has great potential to adapt to extreme climate events,” says Devkota-Wasti. “However, its uptake is poor and it’s poorly understood by farmers, extensionists, research scientists, the private sector and at the policy level in the MENA region.”
Problems for application and the solutions
Devkota-Wasti says several major constraints have slowed the spread of conservation agriculture in the MENA region. One reason for its low adoption is that farmers in the region, who are mostly smallholders, lack easy access to the specialized no-till seeding machinery that can operate effectively in undisturbed and hard soils, and which is key to the success of the approach. As imported no-till seeders are prohibitively expensive, local manufacturing of low-cost machinery is considered vital for increasing adoption of conservation agriculture regionally.
Competition over crop residues is another constraint. Maintaining soil cover through crop residues impacts surface evaporation, soil water balance, build-up of soil organic matter and improvement in soil quality. However, many smallholder farmers in the MENA region rely on grazing livestock, who utilise the crop residues as animal feed. Advising farmers to increase forage production, confining grazing livestock to certain parts of fields and adjusting grazing duration can help overcome this challenge.
Achieving wider adoption of conservation agriculture also requires improving policies and institutional support, from supportive legislation to financial assistance.
Addressing the common misconception that tillage is important for high yields, which leads to a lack of trust and confidence in the conservation agriculture approach, will be especially key to improving regional uptake. “To increase awareness and confidence about [conservation agriculture], it’s important to have large-scale participatory field demonstrations, field days, and [raise] community awareness, linked to extension programs and public and social media,” says Devkota-Wasti.
Rachid Mrabet, research director at Morocco’s National Institute for Agricultural Research says that, despite the constraints, the approach is gaining momentum in MENA countries where “there are conservation agriculture champions, it’s promoted seriously by farmers’ organisations, there is support from the research community and private sector, and backing from the government.” A good example, he says, is Morocco, where last year the government announcement a plan to dedicate one million hectares of arable land to conservation agriculture by 2030.
Isam Bashour, professor of soil science and plant nutrition at the American University of Beirut, thinks the overlapping climate, economic and food crises will potentially encourage a wider shift to conservation agriculture across the region. “The increase in fuel prices will be the major factor pushing farmers to adopt the no-till system,” he says. “Now is a suitable time for governments to make no-till machinery available to farmers and encourage them to adopt this system, which will be more beneficial to them economically and at the same time better for the environment.”
- Devkota-Wasti, M. et al. Conservation agriculture improves agronomic, economic, and soil fertility indicators for a clay soil in a rainfed Mediterranean climate in Morocco. Agricultural Systems https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2022.103470 (2022).
- Devkota-Wasti, M. et al. Conservation Agriculture in the drylands of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: Past trend, current opportunities, challenges and future outlook. Advances in Agronomy https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.agron.2021.11.001 (2021).