October 24, 2012

Visions for a Sustainable Planet

Restoring landscapes through eco-agricultural systems

The international meeting of the Soil Science Society of America, Crop Society of America, Agronomy Society of America (SSSA-CSA-ASA) was held in Cincinnati, Ohio this week.  The theme of the meeting is “Visions for a Sustainable Planet.   I was especially inspired by a session called “Using Conservation Agriculture to restore degraded soils in tropical countries.” I was very happy spending my afternoon hearing passionate researchers share the details of their successful efforts to restore landscapes degraded by deforestation into productive eco-agricultural systems.

Worldwide, there is a tragic cycle of soil degradation and poverty that leaves so many developing countries spinning their wheels on how to provide even the most basic needs for their people. Over-tilling and monocultures lead to soil erosion, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous loss and low soil biodiversity, all of which contribute to low crop production. Deforestation and conversion to cropland is a major contributor to soil degradation as well. Fertilization does little to improve conditions and ultimately leads to water pollution as the chemicals leave the fields with the inevitable water erosion.

Conservation Agriculture has three main tenets to reverse the negative effects of conventional agriculture and deforestation: 1) soil cover, 2) crop rotations (intercropping); and, 3) minimal disturbance. Basically, researchers try a variety of treatments on experimental farms until the best combination of local crops is found to keep the soil covered (avoiding erosion), continuously enrich the soil with carbon and nitrogen and avoid tilling. The results of these practices increase soil organic carbon within the first year, and after three years, the soils on even the most degraded sites are so productive that local farmers who aren’t even involved in the studies start adopting conservation agriculture practices.

Conservation Agriculture costs far less than conventional agriculture and results in higher productivity (Hobbs, 2006).  With the right combination of crops, farmers can manage pests and weeds, reduce fertilizer use, and reduce the size of land parcel required for equal production. In some cases, the croplands are even able to sequester carbon at level similar to the forest that had previously grown on the land.

One primary aspect of Conservation Agriculture that holds promise is the education and empowerment of women.   Organizations that teach conservation agriculture are insisting upon teaching it to women as well as men.  I am inspired by the progression this field, because I know we can make a significant difference for people and nature across the globe through better stewardship of our soil. 


P.R. Hobbs. 2006. Conservation agriculture: what is it and why is it important for future sustainable food production? Journal of Agricultural Sciences, 145(2):127-137.

Datasets relevent to this blog post are available to download or visualize in Data Basin.  For example, see:

Global Assessment of Human-induced Soil Degradation (GLASOD)

Global cropland stress on rivers

HWSD Global Soil Quality - Constraints on nutrient availability

Click below to read more about organizations working on conservation agriculture:

Conservation Farming Unit

Virginia Tech's Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program

University of California Conservation Agriculture System Innovation (see video)

About the author:
Wendy Peterman, Ph.D.
Soil Scientist, GIS Analyst
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