Save and Grow: Sustainable production
Maize, rice, and wheat - the world’s major cereals - can be grown in ways that take into account sustainability for a better future.
A book published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations advocates “Save and Grow” technique when it comes to farming.
According to the UN food agency, environment-friendly farming methods can take us to a more sustainable future, keeping in mind the sustainable development agenda of ending hunger and poverty by 2030.
“We need a global transition to a more resilient and sustainable agriculture that is less dependent on agrochemicals and draws more on natural biological and ecosystem processes,” FAO’s Deputy Director of plant production and protection division William Murray said.
It has been estimated that by 2050, the annual global demand for maize, rice, and wheat will reach almost 3.3 billion tonnes (800 million tonnes).
According to Murray, reaching the target will be more difficult than in the past owing to widespread degradation of farmlands, increasing competition for land and water, stagnation in the growth of cereal yields and the impacts of climate change (higher temperatures, intense droughts, and flooding).
The “Save and Grow” practice consists of a set of techniques that advocate natural ecosystem processes to “produce more with less”.
The technique focuses on conservation agriculture, maintaining soil health, selecting crops with higher yield potential and greater resistance to climate change, efficient water management and pest control.
One such example practised in Asia (China) is the rice-fish farming system wherein farmers rear fish in flooded paddy fields.
While on the one hand, the fish can be sold for income or eaten for nutrition, on the other hand, growing fish along with rice helps in controlling fungi and weeds that damage the crop. It thus reduces the need to depend on pesticides.
“Rice-fish is a traditional system that has been largely replaced by intensive rice mono-cropping. We are now seeing, in countries like Indonesia, a revival of aquaculture in rice fields. What “Save and Grow” can contribute is better management of fish stocking and harvesting, which has been shown to increase fish production three times over and increase rice yields by 10 percent,” Murray told Down To Earth.
Basically, what “Save and Grow” add to traditional systems is new technologies and practices such as higher-yielding varieties, precision irrigation, needs-based fertiliser management, bio-pesticides and direct-seeding without soil tillage, the FAO agriculture expert added.
Successful eco-system practices from across the world
Keeping in mind that ecosystems and farm needs vary across the world, the “Save and Grow” concept provides scope to try out innovative farming techniques while at the same time promote sustainability.
The zero-tillage method adopted by farmers in Kazakhstan in Central Asia shows that conservation agriculture can go a long way in increasing wheat yields.
Farmers across the semi-arid steppes of northern Kazakhstan suffered huge losses after the region witnessed one of its worst droughts in 2012.
There was a dip in the country’s wheat harvest, from 23 million tonnes in 2011 to less than 10 million tonnes the following year.
“Ploughing has been the standard practice in wheat production for millennia. Only now, after some 50 years of very intensive mono-cropping in key wheat-producing regions, have the full costs become clear—depletion of soil fertility, loss of soil biodiversity, and soil’s capacity to retain moisture and nutrients,” FAO’s deputy director of plant production and protection division William Murray said.
In Kazakhstan, ploughing contributed to the loss of millions of tonnes of soil annually to wind erosion. The shift to zero or much-reduced tillage since 2000 was accomplished with strong government support with the result that wheat growing is now both more productive and sustainable.
Back in 2012, there were some lucky wheat cultivators who had adopted conservation agriculture—zero tillage, retention of crop residues on the soil surface and crop rotation and they had all the reason to smile.
While the wheat yield failed due to the severe drought, some farmers in Kostanay province achieved yields of two tonnes per hectare, almost double the national average of recent years, that very same year.
Conservation agriculture in northern Kazakhstan’s wheat belt has been driven by necessity, the FAO report says.
The country has vast land resources and is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of wheat, but the crop relies entirely on precipitation and is vulnerable to loss of soil moisture.
As part of sustainable agriculture, wheat farmers started reducing tillage in the 1960s to cope up with high losses of soil to wind erosion. By the end of the 20th century, minimal tillage was a common practice.
Trials in the north showed that zero-tilled land produced wheat yields 25 percent higher than ploughed land while labour costs were reduced by 40 percent and fuel costs by 70 percent, the report adds.
Today, Kazakhstan ranks among the world’s leading adopters of zero-tillage farming practice. The area of land that is no longer ploughed at all rose from nil in 2000 to 1.4 million hectares by 2008.
When it comes to Africa, the Save and Grow approach has contributed to a revival of the traditional practice of growing maize intercropped or rotated with legumes, such as groundnuts, soybeans, and pigeon peas.
Legumes are particularly important for restoring soil health and fertility. It is estimated that globally, some 190 million hectares of grain legumes contribute to around 5 to 7 million tonnes of nitrogen to soils.
“The roots of chickpeas and pigeon peas secrete organic acids which can mobilise fixed forms of soil phosphorus and make it more readily available to cereal crops. Legumes also release into the soil hydrogen gas, which is oxidised by soil microbes and further improve soil biology,” Murray said.
According to him, farmers in Bangladesh are growing maize and Napier grass between the two main rice-growing seasons as an efficient way of producing food, earn income and provide fodder for livestock.
In the Indo-Gangetic Plains of South Asia, farmers have developed a crop rotation system that produces rice during the summer monsoon and wheat during the short winter. However, a major constraint to wheat productivity is late sowing due to late rice harvest. Precious time is also lost owing to the farmers’ practice of thoroughly ploughing the harvested rice fields.
In many areas, the wheat planting date has been brought forward by direct-seeding wherein sowing is done after the paddy harvest with no prior tillage operations. Zero-tillage contributes to higher wheat yields, in the range of 6 to 10 percent, because it allows for timely sowing and produces a better crop stand.
The impact of Save and Grow practices and technologies is reflected in recent increases in wheat production in India. Following poor yields from 2003 to 2007 in Punjab, wheat productivity has increased steadily and average output exceeded 5 tonnes per hectare in 2012.
While Green Revolution focused on the intensive production of maize, rice and wheat and improved the supply of dietary energy, it did not improve overall human nutrition. Much more attention needs to be given not only to the quantity, but also to the variety and quality of the foods produced and consumed, and this is one of the key concepts of “Save and Grow”.
Though “Save and Grow” promotes conservation, it does not entirely take us back to the old days style, a senior FAO official based in Rome said. There is a need to identify genetic species that will productively interact with ecosystems.
And here technology has a vital role to play. One such concept is laser-assisted land-leveling, which reduces water losses by as much as 40 percent, improves the efficiency of fertilisers and boosts yields by from 5 to 10 percent.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)