Food security starts from the ground up

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes.

With the start of Global Soil Week on 27 October, The World Bank’s Maurizio Guadagni has plenty to share about the importance of healthy soils to improve our agricultural systems. He is connected to the initiative Bridging Agriculture and Conservation led by Bioversity International, which is a member of the CGIAR Consortium and WLE partner.

Soils are the forgotten ecosystem service, says Maurizio Guadagni, rural development specialist at the World Bank.  But he is out to change that.  For him they are the key to food security, to biodiversity protection and especially to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Carbon emissions from farming double when forests are cleared for farming. This is an aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT Carbon emissions from farming double when forests are cleared for farming. This is an aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Guadagni is connected to the new Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative, launched in Brazil in July by Bioversity International with global partners.  His pitch is for soils to be at the heart of "climate-smart agriculture".

Since publishing a report called Turn Down The Heat last November, which probed a possible world four degrees warmer, the Bank "has significantly increased its focus on climate change," Guadagni says.  "Our new President Jim Yong Kim is giving a lot of attention to the issue and to the links with agriculture, a topic that is dear to me."

With this increased focus on climate change, said Guadagni, the Bank will be building on and scaling up its work in this area. "We are looking to invest in agriculture and climate change. My particular interest is soil," he says. Improved soils can capture carbon to slow climate change, and hold water to improve agriculture's adaptability to the extremes of climate change.

Agriculture is a central part of the problem of climate change, he says. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes estimates that 14 per cent of carbon emissions come from farming.  That figure doubles if clearance of forests for farming is included.

But agriculture is the solution, too. "Jointly, agriculture and forestry have more potential to mitigate climate change than the energy sector," he says.

Guadagni spends a lot of his time trying to convince policy makers about the benefits to their farmers and their economies of taking steps to counter climate change.  He needs to keep things simple, and show short-term benefits as well as long-term gains.

His big pitch for keeping carbon in soils and making a buck along the way is no-till agriculture.  If you don't plough fields between crops, organic matter such as crop residues stays in the soils rather than being oxidised in the air.   You keep more carbon in the soil.  It works as part of a suite of techniques known as conservation agriculture that includes maintaining year-round soil cover and increased crop rotation.

No till is as good at capturing carbon as planting a rainforest -- and should be treated as a similar "carbon credit" in any future deal to set up a carbon trading system round the world, he says.

"Yes, climate change is now a major focus.  The Bank has a long record on sustainable agriculture – the challenge remains mainstreaming climate as a critical pillar of sustainability," Guadagni says.

But he insists that they are much the same thing.  As well as capturing carbon, conservation agriculture increases soil fertility, maintains the level of biodiversity in soils, and improves farm profitability."

What about smallholder farmers?  Here he concedes that they may not be the easiest to reach with this approach.  "The practices involved in conservation agriculture are easier to achieve on mechanized farms," he says.  "They have more technical skills, and it is easier for mechanized farms to adopt no-till because they save on fuel costs.”

But small farmers can be involved.  "In southern Brazil, where I visited recently, small farmers band together in cooperatives, allowing them to share machinery, for instance.  So there you have farmers with 10 hectares or less, practising conservation agriculture."

He is more worried, however, that commercially minded farmers won't see any short-term benefits from conservation agriculture.  The key, he suggests, may be in demonstrating to farmers that better soils deliver better instant yields because they can withstand droughts better.

Again he has a simple message. "More fertile soils, containing more organic matter, can hold more water, and keep it through a drought," he says. "Moist soils are also cooler, which means less risks from heat waves."  No-till does this, he is quick to point out.

On the dry steppes of Kazakhstan in central Asia, the world's seventh largest wheat exporter, he has recently helped persuade many farmers to adopt no-till. "It has increased yields there by up to 40 per cent during drought years and 30 per cent at other times," he boasts.

And he has a nice story about how no-till leaves crop stubble in the soil through the winter.  "The farmers told me that the stubble traps snow on the ground for longer.  And as it melts, it seeps into the soil, keeping it cool and moist through the spring.  On dry steppe, farmers can see the benefit of that."

Guadagni, like many, see water shortages as a key challenge for feeding the world.  Again he is on common ground in stressing the importance of stemming the massive wastage of water on farms – which use around 70 per cent of the freshwater captured from nature.

According to Guadagni, the key here is increasing water efficiency. The World Bank has always argued that market forces can contribute to it.  “What is most important is that farmers pay according to the quantity of water they actually use, so they have an incentive to be frugal," says Guadagni “most still do not”.  Most irrigation systems charge a fixed amount for access to water, after which farmers can take as much as they want, he says.

Even modest incentives would encourage farmers to save.  They don't necessarily have to go for expensive investment in things like drip irrigation.  Improvements to flood irrigation – for instance by levelling their fields – can deliver significant savings.  "Farming uses so much water that even a 10 per cent saving is a very big deal."

The key is to make agricultural institutions, who are interested in productivity, collaborate with environmental institutions, who are interested in environmental protection. That is where the Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative can play a key role, in helping build connections between agricultural productivity and environmental protection.

So he is hopeful.  About water and, especially, about soils.  There is plenty to do.  "I hope the Bridging Initiative can increase the attention farmers and governments pay to links between water and soils," he says.  That way huge gains can be made for both the environment and the livelihoods of farmers.


Lets start with: "Again he has a simple message. “More fertile soils, containing more organic matter, can hold more water, and keep it through a drought,” he says. “Moist soils are also cooler, which means less risks from heat waves.” No-till does this, he is quick to point out"

And yet, adoption is extremely low, even in countries that have spent 25+ years and 100's of millions of dollars (and that's just the amount I could count using google to search), like Zambia. Why? Because it is not simple.

Especially with "conservation agriculture" (minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, crop rotation), which has become something of a theology, more research needs to be done to characterize under which conditions it makes economic sense to adopt (and continue adoption). Drought-prone is one factor that does indeed increase adoption of no-till, but one still confronts constraints especially to the rest of the package, e.g. high opportunity costs of leaving crop residues on field (as opposed to use as fodder, fuel, etc) and/or high costs of other mulches to permanently cover the soil, and higher weeding labor, at least in the initial years.

The concern about commercially-oriented farmers is a bit flabbergasting in this context. It is precisely commercially-oriented farmers, reliant on fuel-based mechanization, who find it economically advantageous to engage in no-till, especially when combined with, say, Round-Up Ready (GMO) soya+Round UP. No-till means much lower fuel costs; ability to finance GMO seeds and herbicides helps with the weed problem.

Nothing is simple. But I also agree that the "no blueprints, no magic bullets, no panaceas; everything is different everywhere at every point in time" mantra is equally unhelpful. As is usually the case, reality is likely somewhere in the middle between totally idiosyncratic down to the square inch vs. completely homogeneous. Various soil improvement techniques are likely to work under various conditions. In the case of conservation agriculture, outside of economic studies undertaken in regions dependent on fuel-based mechanized farming system, there is precious little rigorous evidence of the constraints that smallholder farmers not dependent on fuels face in adopting no-till or the entire "conservation agriculture" package. And as far as I can tell, promoters spending 10's of millions of dollars each year in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are absolutely unconcerned about determining why adoption rates are so low after decades of promotion. That's a big problem.

Conservation agriculture is certainly complex, mainly because it is so diferent from ususal pratices.

I am in Portugal and we have a small group that uses thoses pratices with sucess.

No tillage is only one of the changes to be done, the main goal is to reduce erosion and improve organic material, while the microbiotic life and structure of the soils improve, including drainage. and maintain water through organic material.

Rotation crops is the right way to use a better soil.

My experience is that the whole system must be consistente with all these goals.

I mean that you must know that all depends on the quality of your soils and what you do can destroy or improve them., more or less rapidly.

For more than 20 years I have been trying to make compatible raising cattle, having them in my forest and producing grain..

If well done all this can pass from compatibility to complementarity and the system as a whole begins to work, with better and better soils.

But things are never simple and sometimes you have to correct excess of acidity, make drainage,...

Best regards

This is an interesting and I would agree an important concern but I think there is a need for some caution, particularly as applied to smallholders. First is the overall shortcoming of agronomic research, which does a good job of determining what is physically possible but fails to say anything about the operational resources needed to extend the small plot results across a field, farm or smallholder community, It is just assumed this is not a problem. Perhaps not for large mechanized farmers but definitely for smallholders. Particularly when relying heavily on manual labor. In this case are you expecting someone with a diet between 2000 kcal (basic metabolism and no labor) and 3000 kcal (4 hr diligent effort per day) to exert in excess of 4000 kcal needed for a full day of manual labor. Apparently the an evaluation of the operational needs to extend small plot research results has fallen into an administrative void in the development effort. How should be responsible for that!!??

For some of what is mentioned: When applying no till to smallholder are shift a excessive labor requirement from land preparation and crop establishment to weeding and will this overwhelm the labor needs.

Also, be very careful of communally owned equipment. this was discredited some 40 years ago. Typically under communal ownership and management equipment will be surveyed out of service with only about 1.3rd the designed life, Just visit any ADP in Nigeria and check the odometers on that nice neatly parked line of non-serviceable tractors.

I think we have to acknowledge that the poor global has exceeded it sustainable carrying capacity and can only be supported by continued used of additional chemical fertilizers. You might take a close look at Dan Browns new book the Inferno as this is a Central theme of his action novel.

For further information please visit the following webpages from my website. . . .

Thank you,

Dick Tinsley

Dear Nancy,

thanks a lot for your interesting comments, which I share in part. While I agree that adoption of Conservation Agriculture (CA) practices is not that simple, available data do not support your statement that adoption is very slow. According to FAO, global annual adoption of CA is in the order of 6 million ha per year, which is not small. I do not know the case of Zambia, but I would be interested to know how you got from Google that "100's of millions of dollars" [are spent to support CA]. In many countries, very little is spent on CA. Actually, subsidies to fuel and regular farm equipment create a disincentive to CA adoption.

I agree that the case for Africa is more complex than in other parts of the world because of several reasons, including lower level of farm mechanization, higher value of crop residues, and small-holders' low capacity to invest. But what does this imply? That investments in soil fertility cannot be effective in some African conditions (and thus they should be discontinued) or that they should be better targeted to address the local specific obstacles so that they can be more effective? I see a lot of difference between the two.

Thanks for the useful conversation,


Very happy wtih this important attention to healthy soils. But good point on Roundup Ready toxic GMO crops. Beware, they are no-till indeed, but have nothing to do with conservation agriculture. They are an extreme example of exploitation agriculture. The indiscriminate use of roundup and other herbicides and pesticides damage soil life, kill earthworms, promote fusarium growth etc. Biodiversity zero in these toxic monocultures.

Certainly a fascinating discussion on the possibility of addressing both agricultural production and climate change through no-till agriculture. Irrespective of the stance one takes, to till or not to till, solid soil fertility data is required to back up the theory. To date, soil data with links to agricultural management practices, particularly for smallholder farmers, is unfortunately lacking.

The Living Standards Measurement Study team, part of the Development Research Group of the World Bank, is looking to change that. Currently the team is conducting a methodological study in Ethiopia centered on soil quality measurement in partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Central Statistical Agency. To allow for thorough analysis, the study complements the technical plot-level soil tests with farmer estimates of soil quality and data on the cultivation status, fertilizer use, erosion prevention and irrigation practices, production, and, most relevant to your piece, tilling.

Your blog acknowledges that conservation farming may be more difficult, yet potentially beneficial, for smallholder farmers. We hope the data collected through this study can be used to inform further research in this vein.

Whether or not one believes in no-till agriculture, we can all (hopefully) agree on the value and necessity of streamlining the collection of soil fertility data jointly with land management practices and geo-referenced socio-economic data, ideally via panel collection.

I believe environmental and economic benefits can go hand-in-hand with the right systems approach for food security.
Today we are in the situation where we have to achieve crop production growth to meet the needs of a growing population. We cannot expand on marginal lands. The only way crop productions can grow is by agriculture intensification, which comes down to i) growing more crops in the growing season (shorter fallow periods), and ii) increasing the efficiency of use of production inputs.
To fit more crops in the rotation, timely planting of crops is essential. For this reason, doing without tillage (NT) would seem the most appropriate solution.
To do NT without cover crops would, in most cases, lead to problems of soil compaction, poor plant nutrition, and high weed incidence. For this reason, a diversified crop rotation and, where possible, growing the main crop in a living cover crop (which allows to use as much as a fraction of a dose of herbicide) would be advisable.
Diversifying the crop rotation in an undisturbed soil allows the soil food web to be an active player in landscape processes. The macrofauna is active. For example, earthworms moving into the soil build permanent galleries that allow water to infiltrate and roots to grow more rapidly. The mesofauna is active, and accelerates decomposition of the organic material. Soil microorganisms are also active, and break down carbon structures releasing any excess nutrients into the soil in forms that plants can use (mineralization). At the same time, microorganisms reorganize carbon structures in other relatively stable forms (sequestration) that act as a sort of sponge that retains more water and nutrients for later plant uptake, thus increasing crops resilience to dry spells.
I don’t believe that all this is easy. The right crop combination needs to be identified, expertise to be built up, and the availability of the right technology at accessible costs to be guaranteed. In the absence of any of these elements, delay in achieving tangible results will build up frustration.
What I believe is that CA is an environmentally and economically viable system. There will be cases where it will allow triple wins in climate (adaptation and/or mitigation), environment and productivity. When it will be able to bring environmental advantages, it will bring them as side effects of crop production, which is why it accounts for the technology with the lowest costs for mitigation. There will be cases where the mitigation potential will be low or absent, and cases where less than 2 wins will be possible. But I cannot think of cases where CA will be a “climate-dumb” or a “dumb” agriculture approach.

New FAO-World Bank report:

Ukraine - Soil fertility to strengthen climate resilience : Preliminary assessment of the potential benefits of conservation agriculture

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