Source: FAO

The world's farmers must quickly switch to more sustainable and productive farming systems to grow the food needed by a swelling world population and respond to climate change, FAO's top crops expert told an international farm congress here today.

In a keynote speech to 1,000 participants at the IVth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in New Delhi, Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, endorsed CA as an essential part of that change.

"The world has no alternative to pursuing Sustainable Crop Production Intensification to meet the growing food and feed demand, to alleviate poverty and to protect its natural resources," Pandey said. "Conservation Agriculture is an essential element of that Intensification."

Conservation Agriculture is a farming system that does away with regular ploughing and tillage and promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crops rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity. Introduced some 25 years ago, it is now practiced on 100 million ha of land across the world.

Conventional intensive farming methods had often contributed to environmental damage, resulting in declining rates of agricultural productivity just as the world needs to double its food production to feed nine billion people by 2050, Pandey said.

"In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides," he said. "But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down."

On current trends, the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is expected to fall to 1.5% between now and 2030 and further to 0.9% between 2030 and 2050, compared with 2.3% per year since 1961.

In developing countries, growth in wheat yields has gone down from about 5% in 1980 to 2% in 2005. Growth in rice yields went down from 3.2% to 1.2% during the same period while maize yields dropped from 3.1% to 1%.

Conservation agriculture could not only help bring yields back up but also deliver several important environmental benefits, Pandey continued. Aside from restoring soil health, it also saved on energy use in agriculture, reducing the footprint of a sector which currently accounts for some 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It could further mitigate climate change by helping sequester carbon in the soil and also potentially save 1,200 km