Factors underlying the adoption of conservation agriculture in the Mediterranean

Conservation agriculture practices in each of the study regions. From left to right: sheep grazing in Morocco; a CA wheat field in Spain; direct seeding in Tunisia. Photos: Harun Cicek

Our project partners have interviewed more than 500 farmers across Morocco, Spain and Tunisia, to investigate concepts that farmers associate with soil, perceptions of tillage and how social cultural factors – like tradition, community integration, adaptive capacity and perceived responsibility– relate to the choice of farming methods. The data gives insight in how farmers across the Mediterranean perceive and relate to soil, from which recommendations to increase the uptake conservation agriculture (CA) in the region can be derived.

Farmer associations with soil

Farmers generally associate soil with the concept of life. This suggests general awareness of soil as a living resource. However, the concepts livelihood and agriculture were also frequently associated with soil, demonstrating the value placed on soil as a component of farming.
The concept of yield associated to soil was more salient among those farmers practicing conventional agriculture, suggesting a more productivist mindset connected to soil. The concept of biodiversity was more salient among those farmers practicing minimum and no-tillage, suggesting that these farmers identify the biological life of soil, a concept that emphasizes the value of soil for its intrinsic characteristics.

Perceptions of tillage

Our research revealed diverging beliefs among farmers about the effect of tillage on soil. Many farmers practicing conventional tillage believe tillage to have benefits for yield and do not perceive tillage to have a negative impact on water availability. Rather, they see tillage as helping to increase water filtration into the soil. However, many farmers practicing minimum tillage believe conventional tillage to be detrimental to yield and soil productivity. In dry years, CA systems have been shown to improve water-use-efficiency and stabilizing yields in Mediterranean agricultural systems.

Sociocultural aspects of soil management

It was found that sociocultural aspects and sociodemographic factors relate to farmers’ choice of tillage practices. While innovation, community integration, adaptive capacity and perceived responsibility are associated positively with applying conservation tillage methods, the degree also depends on age and education. Farmers with a higher level of education may have more exposure to new technologies, have the knowledge to implement them and perceive themselves to have a greater adaptive capacity to manage soil. Younger farmers may be more open minded for innovations and toward trying new approaches such as reduced tillage and no-till.
Perceptions differed greatly among countries and between farmers practicing conventional or conservation agriculture. For example, the importance of innovation over tradition and community integration were generally greater in Morocco and Tunisia than in Spain, where many in the farming community connect ecological farming methods with traditions. Regarding farmers, the perceived responsibility for conserving soil was greater among farmers performing minimum or no tillage. Also, farmers practicing conservation agriculture often make similar farming decisions than that of their neighbours, indicating the importance of implementing regional demonstration farms to spread a new technology.

Recommendations for increasing the uptake of CA in the Mediterranean

• Many farmers believe that tillage is beneficial for water retention and yields. With increasing drought pressures, the benefits of CA for water availability and stabilizing yields must be promoted through training, trial days or advisory services.
• Effort should be made to reach farmers that are not in existing extension or scientific networks. For farmers without higher levels of education, extension material should be presented in straightforward and accessible terms.
• Emphasizing multiple perceptions of soil in outreach and extension programs could help foster farmers´ perceived responsibility for soil. For example, promoting CA as a tool to stabilize yields in dry areas can be an argument to apply CA for farmers with a productivist mindset.
• To make CA locally acceptable, its promotion needs to be tailored to the local context and recognize traditional and cultural practices.

The full article can be viewed here.

For more information, please contact Dr Emmeline Topp at the research group for Social-Ecological Interactions in Agricultural Systems, Faculty of Organic Agriculture, University of Kassel: topp@uni-kassel.de