Encouraging soil conservation through Conservation Agriculture (CA) Production Systems (CAPS): CA initiative in Cambodia

Sustainable agriculture
Cambodia’s agriculture sector is one of the key engines for economic growth and poverty reduction in the country. According to World Bank database (2020), 31% of the total population is working in agriculture. The major crops in Cambodia are rice, maize, cassava, and sugarcane. As the world relies on countries like Cambodia in Southeast Asia to feed a growing population, the impetus is on doing so in a sustainable manner. Conservation Agriculture (CA) characterized by three linked principles: Minimal soil disturbance, Cover crops and Crops diversification, is a key to sustainable crop production intensification in feeding a growing world population while conserving ecological and natural resources. Cambodia had embarked upon CA initiatives with a primary focus on cropping system design, soil fertility assessment, agricultural engineering, rather than commercial practices. However, in recent years, commercial practices have also been promoted in this area.

Dr. Seng Vang, Director of Department of Agriculture Land Resources Management (DALRM), during an interview mentioned “a big challenge to sustainable use of land is that despite the growing number of farmers using of machinery, many still rely on traditional tillage method for land preparation which is not ideal for soil health.” 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) backs this statement by saying that, every time a farmer tills land to control weeds, the soil becomes more vulnerable to erosion and the soil structure is destroyed. Conventional tillage with tractors and ploughs provokes soil compaction and biological degradation. Even animal traction systems, to a lesser extent, can lead to erosion. The way soils are cultivated today needs to be drastically changed. CA practice aims to address this issue of erosion through tillage by promoting minimal soil disturbance.

Climate change has also exacerbated the threat of land degradation. In recent decades, agricultural intensification has entailed the destruction of Cambodia’s natural assets, resulting in massive deforestation and soil degradation. According to United Nations Committee to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), 6.3 million people were living on degrading agricultural land in 2010. The annual cost of land degradation in Cambodia is estimated at USD 677 million. Land degradation leads to reduction of productivity, soil fertility, ground water recharge, carbon sequestration capacity etc.  Hence, there was and still is, a need for the Cambodian agriculture sector to reinvent itself by shifting from increased production through land expansion and excessive use of inputs towards sustainable intensification.

On addressing one of the components of the CA, minimal soil disturbance, we talked to Mr. Ouchhoeum Larano, owner of Russey Keo Agriculture Machinery Manufacturer & Importer, one of our partners. Mr. Lorano says that Cambodia’s labor shortage has created a lucrative market for technology. He mentions “any type of technology or practice that help reduce labor will be taken up quickly by the farmers.”

He is also convinced that CA practices especially through the use of no-till planters will improve soil health and increase productivity of the farmers. On seeing first-hand the positive effects of CA while on a field trip to Brazil, he recommends the private sector in investing in CA machineries such as the no till planter and says “I have mentioned many times that CA is very beneficial toward the Cambodia farmers, so I do not see a reason why they do not want to invest [in CA technology]. In order to show the farmer what I had witnessed during my visit to Brazil, I am currently investing in developing a CA technology park to replicate the farming system I had seen in Brazil. I envision a full facility that I can show the farmers and service providers the benefit of CA, so they can see what I had witness in Brazil.”

"I am currently investing in developing a CA technology park to replicate the farming system I had seen in Brazil. I envision a full facility that I can show the farmers and service providers the benefit of CA"
Mr. Ouchhoeum Larano, owner of Russey Keo Agriculture Machinery Manufacturer & Importer

The second component of CA is the use of cover crops. A cover crop is basically a plant that is used to cover and protect the soil during the off season or when the soil would otherwise be bare and unprotected. There are many species of plants with many different ecological functions that can be used as cover crops. These crops protect the soil from erosion and increase soil fertility and they suppress growth of weeds. Depending on their roots system they can drill down 2m in 60 days and de-compact the soil like a biological plough and they pump nutrients from deep down to the soil surface and increase nutrient cycling in the soil like a biological pump. These crops also increase the water drainage in the soil and increase water retention capacity, fix Nitrogen from the air and fertilize the soil. They enrich the soil with other macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients and trace elements according to the make-up of their biomass and increase soil fertility and consequently yields and profits of agricultural production. These crops increase the biodiversity on the field and boost ecosystem health.

SmartAgro, a cover crop producer, during the interview mentioned that “integrating cover crops into cropping systems is one step towards a transition to agroecology and an environmentally friendly production system that can be the solution rather than the problem.” At the moment, conventional agriculture emits 25% of all greenhouse gases worldwide, on the Asian continent it is 42%. If farmers stop tilling the soil and integrate cover crops, they can sequester between 1-4t CO2 from the atmosphere per hectare per year and reverse global warming depending on the scale they implement these practices. This is a huge opportunity for humanity, society, and the planet. 

On a smaller scale, focusing on the immediate benefit to farmers, cover crops help the farmers increase biodiversity on their fields, and instead of leaving the land barren, allows them to use the time window to generate new revenue streams. They can either sell the seeds of cover crops or it can be used to increase soil fertility, enhance the resilience of their farm against climate change, drought and floods, and increase the profits of their production year on year as the soil gets more fertile through build up more organic matter and humus which acts like a sponge of nutrients and water for plants.

Swisscontact  in partnership with Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, The Center of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN), CIRAD, Kansas State University, Royal University of Agriculture and the Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab have embarked on implementing CA projects, Conservation Agriculture Services with a Fee (CASF) and Mekong Inclusive Growth and Innovation Program (MIGIP) which aims to bring about positive change in the agriculture sector by implementing Conservation Agriculture Production Systems (CAPS) into Cambodia farming practices. Shifting to this innovative cropping systems and practices based on CA principles will not only result in reduced labour, conserved water, increased yield, increased income for small holder farmers but also improvement in improved soil fertility.