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Insights on Conservation Agriculture Research in North Africa: Current Situation and Opportunities

Some Insights on Conservation Agriculture Research in North Africa: Current Situation and Opportunities

Harun Cicek1,2, Mourad Rekik3, Boubaker Dheibi3 and Aymen Frija3

1 International Conservation Agriculture Advisory Panel for Africa (ICAAP-Africa) Panelist

2 Konya Food and Agriculture University, Konya Turkey

3 International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, Amman, Jordan

Large-scale upscaling of Conservation Agriculture (CA) in North Africa has yet to occur and extension efforts have been ongoing involving national and international organizations. ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) has been in the forefront of CA research and development in North Africa during the last decade in partnerships with national agricultural research and extension systems. CA has been tested and introduced in North Africa during the past three decades and its adoption has been limited. This article describes the current situation of CA in North Africa and discusses the opportunities for upscaling.

Agricultural production in North Africa is primarily based on rainfed cereal-livestock farming systems under Mediterranean climate, where sheep and goats feed on cereal stubble for 3-4 months a year. Conservation Agriculture (CA) has been tested and introduced in North Africa during the past three decades and its adoption has been limited to farmers having large landholdings (> 20 ha) who can afford to import CA no-till seed drills sourced from countries in Europe, Brazil and Turkey. Such large landholders are a minority (˂ 5% of the total farms) in the region characterized by land fragmentation (average farm size is around 5-10 ha in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) and crop-livestock mixed systems.

Large-scale upscaling of CA in North Africa has yet to occur and extension efforts have been ongoing involving national and international organizations. ICARDA has been in the forefront of CA research and development in North Africa during the last decade in partnerships with national agricultural research and extension systems. The latest CA projects in the region have identified a number of opportunities and challenges for wider CA adoption and upscaling through field and on-farm experiments. These projects include: IFAD funded ICARDA project on “Crop-Livestock Integration under Conservation Agriculture” (CLCA), from 2013 to 2016; the ACIAR funded ICARDA project on “Conservation Agriculture for North Africa” (CANA), from 2012 to 2015; the “rainfed conservation agriculture (PAPS-AC; EU-funded)” in Tunisia; and Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM; funded by INRA Morocco).

Several household surveys and focus groups meetings with farmers and other key players (research-extension-agro business, NGO’s and private sector-manufacturers) were also decisive factors in facilitating CA uptake.

CA covers about 10,000 ha in Morocco and 12,000 ha in Tunisia. Work on CA in Algeria is more recent. In 2011, the total area under CA in Algeria was approximately 5,600 ha, and involved about 60 farmers and 65 no-till drills. A survey conducted in 2015 with several focus groups meetings (in the framework of the CLCA project) showed that 14% of farms in the center western part of Tunisia had some experience with CA ranging from 1 to 8 years.

Based on CLCA and CANA projects’ findings, it was clear that the large-scale adoption of CA in North Africa is mainly limited due to two major constraints:

1- The high cost of zero-till seeders: more than 70% of farmers in the region pointed out to the high initial costs of CA farming, especially during the initial transition periods when cost savings and productivity benefits are beginning to come through but not fully realised. . Small farmers consider the availability of machinery (seeders and sprayers) and lack of financial resources (up-front cost of investment) as major constraints.

2- The integration (competition) of crop production with sheep grazing, especially during summer period. This was pointed out as being a strong constraint for 84% of farmers; and classified as the second most important constraint for 29% of farmers surveyed in Tunisia. This constraint is especially important for small farmers of the region who are optimizing their income through combination of crops-livestock production and local stubble grazing for feed cost reduction.

Following the success of locally produced, affordable no-till seeders in Syria, ICARDA exerted its efforts in producing local and affordable no-till seeders in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. As part of the CANA project, a Tunisian prototype has been conceived, manufactured and tested by farmers, but commercial production has not started. In Morocco, researchers have been working on disk type no-till seeders for the last decade and there are now two different models available for farmers with more than 50 seeders locally manufactured and used by farmers. In Algeria, the CANA and CLCA projects opened up venues for the manufacturing of a local zero till seeder in the governorate of Setif and a non-commercial prototype has been produced. ICARDA will seize any opportunity in the future to promote full business models for local manufacturing of suitable seed drills.

Although the lack of no-till seeders appears to be the major bottleneck for the larger and rapid adoption of CA, when available, seeders do not automatically increase the rate of CA adoption when there is no effort directed to support its introduction and uptake, as experienced in Turkey. However, more recently, with extension support, CA has now begun to be adopted in Turkey where there are more than 60,000 ha under CA. It could be argued that the major factor that explains slow adoption of CA in North African cropping systems is the intensive grazing of crop residues by livestock, especially during summer period. Intensive grazing of stubbles goes against the need for some stubble and residue retention, which is a principle of CA. Crop stubble, along with no-till, is needed to protect soil from water and wind erosion, build up soil organic matter over time, capture rain and snow, supress weeds and increase soil water infiltration and retention, therefore increase water use efficiency of crop.

Post-harvest crop stubbles are the main and the cheapest source of energy for livestock in the North African region during the dry summer months when feed shortages are common. Livestock is more profitable and risk adverse commodity than grain cereals for farmers, hence draw more attention and care than grain cereal farming. Introduction of CA in these systems implies that in addition to ground cover with rootstocks, crop residues are to be “shared” between soil and animals and this poses an important constraint for small holders (conflict between stubble grazing and soil permanent cover). Farmers’ willingness to keep some of their straw for ground cover and to ‘feed’ the soil has a financial angle as well. Analysis of surveys in Tunisia for example suggests that 51% farmers require subsidies between 25 and 150 USD to stop grazing stubbles on their own farms. However, the biomass from cereal crops of wheat and barley required to achieve a minimum 30% soil cover is reported to be around 0.5 t ha-1, an amount which suggests that the farmer may not be dealing with an absolute barrier. This is even more so when considering that CA with no-till and minimum soil cover leads relatively quickly to improved biomass output, thus easing the pressure from livestock, which at the same time can be managed under improved grazing management.

Unfortunately, stubble-grazing practices in the Mediterranean basin often lean towards intensive, high stocking rate methods, leaving soil barren. Harvested lands in many parts of North Africa are considered as common lands and owners often have no control over the transient livestock herds grazing their stubbles, especially if they are belonging to their same community. Further, the land is intensively tilled, which along with over grazing, leads to soil erosion and land degradation which further feeds into decreased or maintaining a very low level of biomass production potential. Thus, there is an overriding need to break this vicious cycle of low and decreasing crop and livestock productivity. Recent research from North West USA, Israel and Australia suggest that moderate stubble grazing may not be detrimental and could even be considered as a beneficial practice controlling pests and diseases, and perhaps increasing soil organic matter. Although experience indicates that a certain amount of stubble (i.e., ~500 kg ha-1 or 30% of soil cover) should be present to achieve CA benefits, there is limited empirical data from livestock integrated CA systems. Most of the data comes from systems where full stubble retention is possible and little or no livestock pressure exists, hence disregarding the role of nutrient recycling through fecal and urine excretion.

The reality of stubble grazing in North Africa necessitates an alternative approach to CA application. There is a need to establish optimum stubble management options, and forage-oriented crop rotations, as well as improved community-based grazing management options, under CA in this region. Larger adoption of integrated CA systems will ensure improvement and/or preservation of carbon stocks in soils, increase water infiltration and water holding capacity of soils, and render these systems more resilient to climate change.

Although crop residues are perceived to be the essential complimentary nutrient source for livestock during the summer months, the dry matter intake and nutritional quality of the crop stubble and residues on the ground decreases linearly with an increasing number of grazing days and stocking rates. Immediately after harvest, higher quality plant parts such as leaves and some grain are inadvertently left on the field because of poor harvesting practices. These higher quality materials have been shown to benefit livestock in live-weight gain but animals consume these materials in just few weeks depending on the stocking rate. Thus, after a certain number of grazing days, dependent on initial conditions and stocking rates, animal requirements could no longer be met by stubble grazing alone. It appears that reducing the amount of stubble intake may not have detrimental effect on livestock. In this respect, CLCA project in both Tunisia and Algeria advocated alternative livestock enterprises where the development and promotion of small-scale farm feedlots is supported by on-farm produced conserved fodder (i.e. oat, vetch) and locally available alternative feed resources. Another aspect of crop-livestock systems is the positive impact of faeces and urine on the following crop.

As mentioned earlier, lack of appropriate extension support resulting from limited number of local CA experts is known to hinder adoption of CA when dealing with smallholder farmers. If locally-developed seeders are suitable for or respond to the needs of the majority of small farmers (having less than 10-20 hectares of land), then often the demand for no-till seeding and weeding can be met cost-effectively by contract service providers. They can offer such a service at an affordable cost and at the same time spread seeder ownership and maintenance costs.

Fortunately, besides the above-described constraints to adoption, there are several opportunities that can stimulate the adoption and uptake of CA. However, the most important issues revolve around implementing innovative stubble and residue management strategies; lowering no-till seeding machinery cost to improve availability; and supporting contract service providers to deliver affordable no-till seeding and weeding services. Regardless of actual and perceived constraints, there is a great interest from the farmers, technicians, scientists and government officials and private sector towards CA as a practical solution to alleviate land degradation, improve water use efficiency and agricultural productivity, mitigate the effects of climate change and increase the resilience of farming systems in North Africa.

Thus, prospects for increased adoption and spread of CA in the coming years appear bright; in Morocco, the government has established a subsidy program to acquire no-till seeders and launched a national program for CA promotion in 2016. Starting from 2017 the Tunisian, government has increased the subsidy of agricultural machinery up to 50%, which may encourage and help farmers to acquire no-till seeders. In Algeria, the government has established a subsidy program to acquire all the local agricultural machinery including no-till drills.