What is Conservation Agriculture?

A way of growing crops that is both good for farmers and good for the environment. Now that’s sustainable!


The Feed the Future SANREM Innovation Lab is happy to promote sustainable farming worldwide, and specifically focuses on a set of farming techniques called conservation agriculture. Conservation is a buzzword that has been used to talk about natural resources and the environment in a multitude of ways. So what exactly is conservation agriculture?

Known as CA or CAPS (which stands for Conservation Agriculture Production Systems), conservation agriculture is a set of practices that, according to North Carolina A&T professor Manuel Reyes, “has the amazing ability to use the soil to grow crops while mimicking the forest.” How does this work?

Conservation agriculture has three principles:

  1. Maintain a year-round soil cover
  2. Minimize soil disturbance from tillage
  3. Utilize crop rotation systems

How can CAPS principles help farmers? In developing nations where farmers are trying to provide more food for expanding populations, the soil gets depleted rapidly. Yields can suffer and in some cases, farmers must develop new land or even contribute to deforestation in order to find fertile farmland. By increasing the health of the soil with CAPS, farmers can sustainably farm an area of land for longer, and even get higher yields over time. This is a process of sustainable intensification, or getting greater agricultural output for less environmental input. Farming with CAPS can also have positive social and gender benefits, since farmers save labor time from not having to till the soil. This time can be used to grow other crops, pursue additional education, and more.

How does SANREM support conservation agriculture?

Feed the Future SANREM Innovation Lab uses long-term research projects to introduce CAPS to farmers in over a dozen countries. This sustained research is essential to making CAPS farming work. Implementing CAPS takes several growing seasons, because the techniques reform the whole environment.┬áMinimal tilling reduces soil disturbance, which increases soil carbon, essential for soil health. Maintaining a year-round soil cover controls erosion and also increases soil carbon. And rotating crops improves soil health and discourages pests. Jim McKenna, former faculty member at Virginia Tech, notes that, “it takes a while to create a new equilibrium.”

For more information about Feed the Future SANREM Innovation Lab’s projects, click here.