Zambia's Agriculture and Livestock Minister is exhorting smallholder farmers to switch to "conservation agriculture" and praised a corporate social responsibility programme funding the move. To be fair, his explanation of conservation agriculture is as vague as everyone else's, but assuming he means what most of the conservation agriculture lobby means, this raises several concerns.
Conservation agriculture tends to mean farming strategies originally developed by hemp-wearing, organic-farming modern-day hippies (sorry, but it's true). The aim of these techniques is not to ensure a secure, sustainable income for small (poor) farmers, but to preserve Mother Earth. It is also limiting. Conservation farming approaches revile any use of fertilisers and tend to be a little fundamentalist about environmental concerns, at the expense of other concerns, such as ensuring sustainable incomes.
Of course environmental sustainability of farming techniques is important to smallholder farmers - without economies of scale, they cannot afford more industrial approaches to renewing the land they so desperately depend on, so conserving it is their only option. But there are other ways to do this. Ways which prioritise environmental sustainability as part of livelihood support, rather than the other way around. Providing livestock, so that farmers can use the manure as natural fertiliser, reducing costs and improving productivity, for example. Or the age-old approach of extension workers actually doing their jobs and providing accurate advice on crop rotation, tillage and nutrient replenishment. Integrating small farmers into market systems so that they are able to source inputs and equipment best suited to their farming micro-enterprises instead of "making do".
Conservation farming is a high-cost approach that has limited impact on the productivity and economic sustainability of the small farming unit. The Minister's argument that conservation farming reduces labour costs fails to recognise that smallholder farmers use family labour (rather than hiring labour) and that this labour need will increase with techniques like chicken tractors because carers need to be on call at all hours. Other approaches can incorporate concerns about the environment while still recognising that the most important concern is the livelihoods of the farmers. Governments of Southern African countries would do well to stop fixating on fads instead of recognising that the most important thing in development is to do what we know works, well. Donors need to stop fixating on fads and help governments do it.