Professor Amir Kassam delivers the 6th Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture at the University of Reading, UK

Professor Amir Kassam delivers the 6th Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture at the University of Reading, UKIn June 2011, Professor Amir Kassam delivered the 6th Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture at the University of Reading, UK, entitled:


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Below is a summary of Professor Kassam’s lecture

The 6th Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor Amir Kassam at the University of Reading, UK, in June 2011.


My concern is about the quality and direction of the agricultural production systems in the UK and mainland Europe, and therefore of the agriculture sector in general, which in my opinion have moved dangerously off course onto a path of declining productivity and increasing negative externalities, a path that is considered to be unsustainable ecologically as well as economically and socially. Indeed, my concern is that I consider the agriculture production paradigm as is predominantly conceived and practised — the intensive tillage-based interventionist farming with its high and addictive dependence on agrochemical inputs and heavy machinery — is no longer fit to meet the agricultural and rural resource management needs and demands of the 21st century.

My conclusion is: that the root cause of our agricultural land degradation and deceasing productivity – as seen in terms of loss of soil health — is our low soil-carbon farming paradigm of intensive tillage which disrupts and debilitates many important soil-mediated ecosystem functions. For the most part our soils are becoming destructured, our landscape is exposed and unprotected, and soil life is starved of organic matter. This loss of soil biodiversity, destruction of soil structure and its recuperating capacity, increased soil compaction, runoff and erosion, and infestation by pests, pathogens and weeds indicates the current poor state of the health of many of our soils.

Our immediate challenge

In light of the above discussion, the question that must be addressed is: What needs to change to enable farming, research systems and agriculture education in the UK and mainland Europe to heed the warning bells of the negative agro-ecosystem consequences generated by tillage and the overuse of agrochemicals?

A solution: Conservation Agriculture (CA), a no-till agro-ecological system

Conservation Agriculture (CA), also known as a “no-till‟ farming system, is an effective solution to stopping agricultural land degradation and for rehabilitation, and for sustainable crop production intensification. CA has gained momentum throughout the world in all continents.

CA has the following three core inter-linked principles:

1. Minimizing or avoiding mechanical soil disturbance and seeding or planting directly into untilled soil, in order to maintain or improve soil organic matter content, soil structure and overall soil health.

2. Enhancing and maintaining Carbon-rich organic matter cover on the soil surface, using crops, cover crops or crop residues. This protects the soil surface, conserves water and nutrients, promotes soil biological activity and contributes to integrated weed and pest management.

3. Diversification of species – both annuals and perennials – in associations, sequences and rotations that can include trees, shrubs, pastures and crops, all contributing to enhanced crop and livestock nutrition and improved system resilience.

These principles and associated key practices appear to offer an entirely appropriate solution, with the potential capacity to slow and reverse productivity losses and environmental damages. In conjunction with other complementary good crop management practices for integrated crop nutrition, pest and water management, and good quality adapted seeds, the implementation of the CA principles provide a solid foundation for sustainable production intensification. These principles can be integrated into most rainfed and irrigated production systems to strengthen their ecological sustainability.

Conservation Agriculture – an opportunity to save and make money and to improve the planet

Against the background of rising input, food and energy costs, CA can decrease fertilizer needs by 30-50%, water needs by 20-30%, fuel consumption by 50-70%, pesticide and herbicide us by 20%. Reduced cost of production with CA is a key to better profitability and
competitiveness, as well as keeping food affordable.

Experience of switching to CA confirms that the known advantages of CA include higher soil carbon levels and microorganism and mesofauna activity over time, minimisation or avoidance of soil erosion, the reversal of soil degradation, improved aquifer recharge due to greater density of soil biopores due to more earthworms and more extensive and deeper rooting. CA advantages also include adaptation to climate change due to increased infiltration and soil moisture storage and increased availability of soil moisture to crops, reduced runoff and flooding, and improved drought ad heat tolerance by crops, and climate change mitigation through reduced emissions due to 50-70% lower fuel use, 20-50% lower fertilizer/pesticides, 50% reduction in machinery and use of smaller machine, C-sequestration of 0.05-0.2 t ha-1 y-1 depending on the ecology and residue management, and no excess CO2 release as a result of no burning of residues.

Advantages offered by CA to small or large farmers include better livelihood and income. For the small farmer under a manual system, CA offers ultimately 50% labour saving, less drudgery, stable yields, and improved food security. To the mechanised farmers CA offers lower fuel use and less machinery and maintenance costs. To the community and society, CA offers public goods that include: less pollution, lower cost for water treatment, more-stable river flows with reduced flooding and maintenance, and cleaner air.

At the landscape level, CA offers the advantages of better ecosystem services including: provision of food and clean water, regulation of climate and pests/diseases, supporting nutrient cycles, pollination, cultural recreation,conserving biodiversity, and erosion control. At the global level, the public goods are: improvements in groundwater resources, soil resources, biodiversity and climate change.

Progress so far

There is “good news‟ from the rest of the world outside of UK and Europe.

A quiet no-till revolution led by farmers, particularly since 1971/72 in Brazil, has been spreading in all continents (but very slowly in UK and Europe) and CA now occupies over 117 million ha globally.

Principles of sustainable intensification and ecosystem services are better understood than ever before, and are being implemented by some farmers in those countries where there is apropriate government support and guidance.

Although agri-business money has captured government policy through controlling research and therefore our universities in the UK and mainland Europe, this can be turned into a win-win collaboration as has occurred in countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Canada, Australia/NZ and now happening in Kazakhstan, China and parts of Africa.

In the future, all stakeholders – farmers, supply and value chain service providers, academics, researchers, extension agents, policy makers, civil servants, consumers – should become engaged in understanding and harnessing the full power of the no-till
agro-ecological paradigm.

The next generation of farmers, researchers, policy makers,
development experts, private sector providers should be educated and fortified with the knowledge of the principles and practices of the new no-till (agro-ecological) paradigm for sustainable agriculture intensification and environmental services because of a re-examined strategy behind academic agricultural curriculum.

In concluding this lecture of my reflections on lessons I have learned, I acknowledge that I have been rather outspoken about the changes I think need to happen in the farming sector. However, even though I accept sole responsibility for my wish list of changes above that I deem necessary for farming in the UK and Europe, I cannot take full credit for these ideas as they come from many colleagues and institutions from around the world. I hope that my lecture this evening has been in keeping with the spirit and legacy of Professor Bunting.Thank you everyone for your time.

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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