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Working on Agroecological Potentials and Sustainable Agriculture:
A Mini Memoire

Amir Kassam
University of Reading, UK

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These are reflections on the ‘path’ that I travelled from training in the agricultural sciences to work in the broader area of agroecology, which for me was most interesting and productive in its manifestations in Conservation Agriculture and the System of Rice Intensification.

I was born in Zanzibar, Tanganyika, but undertook my schooling in Dar-es-Salaam where my family moved to when I was three years old. The family on my mother’s side had a well-established agricultural produce business which included plantation farming in Zanzibar and on the mainland near Tanga. I was supposed to join the farming business after completing my BSc degree, but Tanzania’s independence in 1961 and the subsequent nationalization of the economy made this impossible.

I completed my BSc (Hons) degree in Agricultural Science in 1966 and a PhD degree in Agricultural Botany (Agroecology) in 1971, both from Reading University. In between, I completed a MS degree in Irrigation Science in 1967 from the University of California, Davis, in the Department of Water Science and Engineering. Don Nielson was my Tutor, and he ensured that I took a diverse range of courses including maths, physical chemistry, agrometeorology, soil-plant-water relations, soil and water management, irrigation and drainage systems. I did my research with Bill Pruitt at his lysimeter site for measuring and estimating crop water use.

During my BSc degree training at Reading, I worked on a large mixed farm, milking a herd of cows and looking after other animals for the entire period of my study to pay for my expenses. During my PhD training at Reading, I worked as a demonstrator in the Department of Agricultural Botany, which was chaired by Professor Hugh Bunting. My PhD research on soil-plant-water relationships of Vicia faba (broad bean or fava bean) was supervised by Jeremy Elston, who had also supervised my BSc dissertation research on evapotranspiration. Professor Bunting, Jeremy Elston, and Don Nielson succeeded in ensuring that I obtained a broad-based education and training in agroecology, ecophysiology, soil and water science, and analytical agronomy.

After completing my PhD in 1971, I worked for three years in Northern Nigeria as a Research Fellow in the Agronomy Department at the Institute of Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Samaru, Zaria, until 1974. There I worked on several crops and cropping systems including intercropping, involving many crops: sorghum, pearl millet, maize, wheat, cowpea, groundnut, soybean, cotton, kenaf, and roselle. This brought me work with valued colleagues, especially Matthew Dagg (Director), Jan Kowal (soil science), Ted Baker (agronomy), Karl Stockinger (soil fertility), David Norman (socio-economics), David Andrews (cereal breeding), and Colin Harkness (groundnut breeding).

The Institute provided a fine environment for multi-disciplinary investigation. My research included working on the ecophysiology of crop growth, development and yield; crop adaptability to different agroecological environments; agroecological potentials of crop production in varying ecological zones; analytical agronomy; crop water use and intercropping; and soil and water conservation. With this background, I wrote a book with Jan Kowal entitled Agricultural Ecology of Savanna: A Study of West Africa, which was published in 1978 by Oxford University Press.

From Nigeria, I moved to ICRISAT in India for two years as an international scientist in crop physiology and agronomy, focusing on sorghum and pearl millet crop improvement, a programme headed by Hugh Doggett and David Andrews. At ICRISAT, my research was focused on the ecophysiology and analytical agronomy of sorghum and pearl millet production, and on the development of physiological breeding populations of sorghum and pearl millet for superior growth and yield performance, efficient nutrient uptake and use, drought tolerance, and vigorous root system development. Seedling vigour, biomass production and source-sink relations; rhizospheric nitrogen fixation and nutrient transfer efficiency; soil-plant-water relations; and root growth and morphology were areas of particular interest to help explain the ecophysiological basis of superior performance and sources of germplasm for crop improvement.  

As a result of the 10 years of research experience at UC Davis and Reading University and in Northern Nigeria and India, the disciplines of ecophysiology, analytical agronomy, and agroecology, as well as crop-water-soil-atmosphere relations, and agroclimatology became core intellectual, research and development interests. and matching the ecological and agronomic requirements of crops and cropping systems to land characteristics of climate, soil, terrain, biotic and abiotic constraints.

In 1977, I joined FAO’s Agroecological Zones (AEZ) project as a consultant agroecologist in the Land and Water Division. The Divisional Director at that time was Rudy Dudal, and the AEZ Project Head was Graham Higgins; Jan Kowal also joined the project. From 1977 to 1989, the work focused on building and applying the AEZ model at regional and national levels to quantify crop and land potentials for improving agricultural development planning. The AEZ project was planned to build upon the recently-completed FAO-UNESCO Soil Map of the World, at a 1:5 million scale.

The overall AEZ model was designed to quantify crop and land suitability assessment based on agronomically-attainable agroecological potentials. The model permitted the matching of a crop’s adaptability characteristics to inventories of climate, soil and terrain characteristics of particular land resources, considering production management constraints. It quantified  the agronomically-attainable crop growth and yield potentials and land use potentials of cropping systems at three levels of technology (low, intermediate, high).

The quantification of crop growth and yield potentials was based on a first-of-its-kind heuristic crop growth and yield model that I had built previously for the AEZ project [1, 2] and which had been applied to over 20 crops and several cropping systems in the AEZ projects. With this model, one could estimate the agronomically-attainable growth and yield potentials of different crops and cropping systems, first without constraints, and then with biotic, abiotic and operational constraints factored in, including yield response to water [3,4].

During the period 1977-80, the AEZ land and crop potentials of all countries in the developing regions were quantified at a 1:5 million scale [5], and this work was further developed during 1980-82 to quantify human population-supporting capacities in the developing world [6].

The AEZ estimates of crop, land and human support potentials showed that the developing world was not short of attainable agroecological potentials for development and of human-supporting capacity. After completing the AEZ national and regional quantification of crop, land and human support potentials, I worked for FAO on several detailed country-level national AEZ land resource assessments for development planning of countries in Africa and Asia, including in Mozambique [7], Bangladesh [8] and Kenya [9], and trained national staff to make their own national-level AEZ land resource assessments based on the compilation of national inventories of land resources.

The years from 1990 to 2005 were then spent based in Rome with the TAC Secretariat, the support body for the Technical Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The TAC was later transformed into the CGIAR’s Science Council. The main issues addressed were sustainability, particularly related to production systems and natural resource management; external programme and management reviews of the CGIAR Centres; and formulating priorities and strategies for the CGIAR.

During the early 1990s, the CGIAR system expanded to include centres that were undertaking international research on natural resource management -- fish, agroforestry, forestry, and water. It was during this period with the CGIAR that I began to question whether the CGIAR system understood how to sustainably manage the natural resource base for agricultural production, and whether the production systems that were being intensified were in fact ecologically sustainable?

There was a great deal of attention being paid to how to conduct research including how to undertake research on natural resource management research most effectively and efficiently. This led to formulations of systemwide and ecoregional programmes, and eventually to mega-programmes. However, there was no questioning of the destructive nature of mechanical tillage of the soil and the environment-polluting effects of agrochemical use. There was a complete underestimation of the roles in natural resource management played by soil biology and soil health, by soil organic matter, and by soil microorganisms and biodiversity, including pest-predator dynamics.

Also, the focus of most research remained on yield increase through genetic improvement for wide adaptability; ecosystems services for sustainability at all levels was mostly absent in the priority-setting at system and centre levels. Thus, the suitability of the ‘Green Revolution’ approach to production intensification for farmers in the developing countries was never challenged; nor were the root causes of agricultural land degradation ever questioned.[i]

The Green Revolution approach assumed that intensification of production had to be achieved by using ‘improved’ seeds and agrochemicals for crop nutrition and protection. There was hardly any attention paid to biological or ecological approaches to production intensification. Furthermore, social research got little sustained attention, and no-till farming systems did not feature in priority setting. The Green Revolution paradigm dominated research mindsets, and little research was directed to alternative production and farming systems development.

During my time with the TAC Secretariat, I took two years of leave to serve as the Deputy Director-General for WARDA, the West Africa Rice Development Association, now AfricaRice from 1998 to 2000. Upon taking up the post at WARDA, I attended the annual CGIAR meeting in Washington DC. During this event, Norman Uphoff asked me to join him for dinner one evening (we had gotten well acquainted in the mid-90s while we had both served on a TAC external review panel for the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka), At the restaurant, we talked about SRI, its performance and implications for food security, poverty alleviation, and agricultural research.

To learn that irrigated or rainfed-wetland rice plants performed better in moist soils than in water-saturated soil was a revelation to me. Similarly, learning about the positive effects on plant morphology, on biomass growth of shoots and roots, on crop yield and phenology that resulted from transplanting young single seedlings at wide spacing was exciting. Given my background in ecophysiology and agroecology and having been educated to believe that wetland rice was an aquatic plant, and that high rice yields depended on growing the plants in water-saturated or flooded soils under high crop density, it was really exciting to learn about SRI from Norman.

Also, given the huge reduction in requirements for seeds, water, and synthetic nutrients that SRI made possible, along with enhanced crop resilience to insect pests and diseases, I could immediately see SRI’s relevance and importance for the livelihoods of resource-poor smallholder rice farmers and their families such as I had worked with in Africa and beyond.

From an ecophysiology point of view, I could not believe that rice scientists were ignorant about what Norman was explaining to me: how rice plants can be induced to perform quite differently and better in terms their morphology, growth and development, their yield components, as well as their phenology just by managing crops, water, soil and nutrients differently from what IRRI was recommending.

In fact, what Fr. Henri Laulanié in Madagascar had discovered about how to make rice plants, and therefore rice crops, more productive and efficient was mostly contrary to what IRRI and their collaborating rice scientists in national programmes were recommending and promoting. It was surprising that with SRI management, even some traditional rice varieties could perform exceptionally well if given appropriate growing conditions to fully express their genetic potentials.

While at that CGIAR meeting in Washington DC in October 1998, I also met at the World Bank with Eugene Terry (former DG of WARDA) and Christian Pieri, who had been promoting no-till farming systems as a basis for sustainable production intensification for rural development.[10] Eugene Terry and his team were keen to explore the possibility of establishing a research and development capacity-building initiative at WARDA to facilitate the transformation of current tillage production systems into sustainable no-till production systems, including rice-based cropping systems.

FAO held its first regional meeting on CA in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998, and participants established the definition of CA based on the application of the three interlinked principles: no continuous or only minimum mechanical soil disturbance (no-till seeding and weeding); permanent soil cover with some kind of mulch (crop biomass, stubble, cover crops); and crop diversification (rotations and/or sequences and/or associations involving annual and perennial crops including legumes).[11]

A few days after physically taking up my position at WARDA in the Ivory Coast in October 1998, it became clear to me that WARDA and most of the other CGIAR centres and their donors and several other important international development organizations were not clear about the reasons why agricultural lands globally were being degraded, and why their reductive research was not able to address effectively the sustainability challenges that had appeared on the horizon.

In fact, TAC had been focusing mainly on how to conduct effective impact-oriented natural resource management research without questioning the root causes of agricultural land degradation and decline in land productivity. The causes were quite evident if one simply studied the situation: soil management employing intensive tillage; the destruction of soil health; mismanagement of crop biomass; and inadequate cropping system diversification.

It also became clear that the technological solutions being offered by the CGIAR centres and international development organizations much of the time were not really pro-poor, despite claims, because they were not suitable or not adoptable for resource-limited households. They continued to push ‘Green Revolution’ technologies regardless of economic, social and environmental impacts, or the fact that they required the replacement and loss of traditional knowledge and practices as well as the purchase of expensive inputs.

As a result, like elsewhere in the CGIAR system and in development institutions such as the World Bank and regional banks, it was being asserted, with little if any supporting evidence, that access to credit was a serious constraint to technology uptake and spread, because the technologies being considered and promoted were dependent on the use of external inputs.

At WARDA, as with most CGIAR Centres, there was also a lack of research on systems development in the sense that there was no clear definition of what ‘sustainable’ and ‘pro-poor’ rice-based farming systems would look like, or how farmers could be gotten to transform and develop those systems. To me it was not possible to achieve sustainability or to formulate pro-poor production systems without integrating the ecological underpinnings of soil biology and soil health to strengthen the living biological foundations of production systems.

It was also assumed at WARDA and in the CGIAR generally that the reductive research process was sufficient to produce promising technologies ready to be extended to farmers through a linear, top-down extension approach, without ex-ante proof of their suitability for smallholder adoption. And there was always the issue of how the new technologies, often mainly reliant on introduction of new varieties, would cope with the great natural and social diversity of agriculture and farming systems.

In fact, WARDA had been set up originally as an extension arm of IRRI, to undertake adaptive research on technologies produced by IRRI researchers in the Philippines to be extended to farmers in West Africa. I was able to share my concerns and ideas with Willem Stoop, who had been serving as WARDA’s interim Director of Research and who was still present when I arrived there so that he could hand over his responsibilities to me.

We were both staying at the WARDA Guest House and therefore had plenty of opportunity to discuss a number of issues of interest to ourselves and relevant to WARDA’s research and development agenda. Willem also informed me about his failed attempt in 1998 to initiate SRI evaluation at WARDA during his time as interim Director of Research in 1997-98.

Thus, within a couple weeks of being at WARDA, I decided to communicate to the staff and senior management, including the Director-General Kanayo Nwanze, about this sub-optimal situation at WARDA. With Kanayo’s approval, we were able to obtain Board approval to establish a Systems Development and Communication Programme to replace the existing Extension and Communication Programme.

To ensure that the research management process was effective and generally efficient, a guiding process was introduced as a management tool so that researchers at WARDA could establish that the research they were proposing and/or undertaking was relevant for targeted environments and farming systems and was of good quality.

Also, this research management process would be conducted in a participatory manner that involved learning on all sides. It was designed to assess whether progress towards producing promising technologies and practices was real and on track. This ‘check’ would be considered as an essential internal review point in the research management process by the scientists concerned before the research moved ahead, towards systems development testing. This would involve working through coalitions with extension collaborators and service providers that would demand considerable contributions of time, effort and resources from all partners.

Such an ex-ante check of relevance and real progress was built into the research management process for participating scientists at the individual project level within the ongoing medium-term plan (MTP). Thus, it was important for scientists not to be in a hurry to unilaterally and prematurely announce that they had developed promising technologies without first establishing that this was truly the case by conducting ex-ante testing of technologies on-farm through field research and/or by simulating the performance of the promising technologies and the expected benefits through computer modelling.

This reorientation was reflected in a new institute-wide research management process along the research-to-development continuum that was presented to the WARDA Board in November 1998. This programme management and research process was complementary to the other required institute-wide and programme-wise annual and mid-term reviews.

Overall, there was a need to foster a research culture and ethos within the CGIAR that would promote a development‐oriented synthesis of socially-responsible research that integrates biophysical and human sciences into research planning and implementation processes along the research‐to‐development continuum in agriculture. [12] Such a research process at the level of individuals and groups of scientists, as well as at the programme and centre level, would not be linear but instead circular, promoting an innovation system with feedback and feed-forward loops operating in all parts of the process, providing opportunity to maximize relevance and probability of success, with a possibility to adjust, stop, revise, expand, etc.

This research management process also allowed for me as the director of research to have a more effective staff research performance evaluation process, and also it enabled WARDA to manage donor-funded research projects more effectively through a group of scientific staff members who linked WARDA projects within the approved Medium-Term Plan. In addition, as WARDA had never conducted an institute-wide annual programme review and planning, a practice dry-run was planned for early December 1998, with a full review in early January 1999.

Both SRI and CA, as pro-poor production systems that would build on farmer’s own knowledge, practices and resources, fitted well into the idea of production-systems development research being pitched to strengthen productivity and livelihoods. Both also fitted well into my own professional interest in agroecology, ecophysiology, and analytical systems agronomy. I therefore immediately agreed with Norman Uphoff and Willem Stoop to promote SRI research at WARDA. However, as Willem had previously found out, there was no enthusiasm for it from any of WARDA’s scientific staff.

We were able to establish some SRI trials at the WARDA’s Mbé station with help from Monty Jones, leader of the Rainfed Rice Improvement Programme, during the 1999-2000 wet season. But the initial trials were not conducted properly due to poor control of water and nutrient management. However, beneficial effects from SRI crop management methods on crop morphology (both shoots and roots) and on crop phenology were apparent in the trial during 2000, and also during the 2001 dry-season and wet-season trials set up by Willem Stoop, who had taken over from me when I left. These trials had better SRI water and nutrient management, as described by Stoop (2005).[13]

To introduce a no-till CA system development opportunity to WARDA staff, I agreed to host a regional workshop on the development of no-till CA capacity for sustainable production intensification systems. The workshop was organized and held in May 1999 with the help of World Bank colleagues Eugene Terry and Christian Pieri, and also John Landers in Brazil, who was consulting for the World Bank at the time.

The purpose of this workshop was to establish a unit at WARDA that would promote sustainable farming systems research and development based on no-till CA systems. However, given that WARDA was a single-commodity CGIAR centre, and the fact that there was no research and development expertise at WARDA on no-till farming systems, and also given my short tenure at WARDA, the proposed no-till systems initiative proved difficult to put into longer-term action.

Other examples of system development that were promoted and supported at WARDA included: (a) development of community-based seed systems, including the management of primary germplasm materials at the village and community level; and (b) holistic inland- valley agroecosystems development with land use diversification involving wetland rice, vegetables, a range of upland crops, animals, aquaculture and irrigation development, and water and biodiversity management.

Despite not making much progress in developing research for SRI and no-till CA at WARDA, I nonetheless became deeply stimulated by these systems as frontline examples of innovative agroecological and pro-poor approaches for sustainable production intensification. I was also deeply convinced of their relevance for smallholder sustainable development, as well as for agricultural development in general.

To me, the lack of interest in these systems at WARDA was a reflection of the narrow ‘Green Revolution’ research mindset within the CGIAR system, focused on ‘modern’ seeds. Inadequate attention was being paid to research on agroecological, pro-poor production systems, and there was virtually no support for non-economic social research dealing with the role of local participatory action, grassroots social organizations. Traditional knowledge that  could facilitate the improvement of farming systems by integrating relevant new technologies and practices was of little or no interest to scientists.

After returning to my post in Rome in October 2000, in the TAC Secretariat based at FAO, I began to live two parallel professional lives. One life was focused on my FAO work as Senior Agricultural Research Officer in the TAC Secretariat (soon to be reorganized into the CGIAR’s Science Council Secretariat). This work focused on serving as the technical secretary to the work of the Standing Committee on CGIAR Research Priorities and Strategies (SCOPAS), chaired by Alain de Janvry, an agricultural and resource economist. SCOPAS included some agroecological experts such as Dick Harwood, Elias Fereres, and Hans Gregersen, and a social anthropologist in the World Bank, Michael Cernea. The TAC and the CGIAR system as a whole did not, however, consider agroecological systems development such as SRI and no-till CA to be priority areas of research. Thus, there was no opportunity for me to introduce ideas and concepts embodied in SRI and no-till CA system into the agenda of SCOPAS.

However, I was able to promote and engage within my SCOPAS work on topics that included setting regional research priorities and strategies [14, 15]; natural resource management [16,17]; water management [18]; social research [19] which had been another ignored area in CGIAR research agenda; food safety [20]; enhancing and guarding the relevance and quality of research [21]; the causes of low impact of CGIAR research in West and Central Africa from national and international perspectives [22, 23]; information communication technologies [24]; and food safety [25]. The work of CGIAR centers on natural resource management continued, however, to focus more on how to conduct research [26] than on the root causes of agricultural land and biodiversity degradation and on its implications for development of pro-poor production systems.

My second life, running in parallel with the FAO post and relying on my spare time and volunteer professional efforts, was dedicated to understanding and working on the root causes of agricultural degradation and on what could establish solid ecological underpinnings for sustainable agriculture. My interest in improving shared understanding of the ecophysiological bases of crop yield and resilience, and in applying this knowledge to improve ecological conditions for crop growth and yield, instead of excessive reliance on the use of agrochemicals, remained as strong as ever.

Thus, while working at the TAC Secretariat, I was able to continue working on SRI and CA. These systems were showing, based on international scientific and empirical field evidence, very good potential to help smallholder farmers in low-income countries to improve their livelihoods by manipulating the ecological production conditions rather than by relying on expensive seeds and agrochemicals and on credit.[ii]

These systems relied heavily on the contributions of soil microorganisms and biological means to protect crops and getting the soil and crop health management right through basic, indeed fundamental, ecologically-oriented core practices. By the time I retired from the TAC Secretariat in 2005, the CGIAR had become increasingly a politicized organisation where donor/funding concerns started to prevail over professionalism. There was increased emphasis on generating publicity under the banners of poverty, food security, and gender equity, operating like a multi-national corporate organization while protecting the status quo (‘business as usual’). There was little prospect for fundamental improvement in its relevance for sustainable food and agriculture development.

In the autumn of 2000, while I was still working for the TAC Secretariat in Rome, Professor Hugh Bunting asked me to take over his lecture course at the University of Reading which he had been delivering to post-graduate students going through the MSc programme on Tropical Agriculture Development. Professor Bunting had been a kind and close mentor to me since my undergraduate days at Reading, guiding and advising me constantly on research and development matters and on career issues and opportunities. This was possible for me to do, beginning in January 2001, as I had already been appointed as an honorary Principal Research Fellow in Reading’s Department of Agriculture in 1995.

Professor Bunting had designed the course to make post-graduate students aware of the large generic issues of agricultural development such as: What is this thing called Development; Food, Land and Population?; Factors that Promote or Hinder Development; Science and Technology for Development; and Agricultural Knowledge Systems. Over time, the course evolved into a full semester module on Sustainable Natural Resource Management and Poverty Alleviation, and then around 2008/09 into ‘Rethinking Agricultural Development: Searching for Solutions’.[29]

Both CA and SRI featured prominently in the course, and it included a guest lecture by Tony Reynolds, the pioneer CA farmer in Lincolnshire, UK, as well as visits to his farm at the end of the spring term. It was becoming clearer to me in which directions the alternate paradigm for farming needed to go to achieve sustainable agriculture intensification and development for all land-based farming systems globally for all farmers. The pieces were beginning to fall in place.

In 2011, I delivered the 6ᵗʰ Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture at Reading University on: The Future of Farming: What Needs to Change? The lecture focused on the root causes of agricultural land degradation, loss of agroecological productivity and unsustainability and made a case for CA, including CA-SRI, as a necessary foundational solution.[30] By that time, I had changed the title of the course  to Rethinking Agriculture Development: Implementing Solutions, and the full-semester course focused on all aspects of CA for sustainable intensification: science and systems, practice and benefits, and adoption and spread, as well as teamwork for CA-based project development, and dissertation field research on CA related topic for those students who chose to do so.

In 2002, I was invited by Willem Stoop to co-author a review paper on SRI that he was writing with Norman Uphoff to be submitted to Agricultural Systems.[31] This paper when published created an uproar in the mainstream rice research community with accusations from IRRI scientists that SRI was ‘voodoo science’ and should not be taken seriously.

The ensuing ‘rice wars’ revealed how the mainstream rice community led by IRRI would do whatever it could to discredit the new knowledge and contributions of SRI to smallholder production development, while at the same time incorporating the innovative practices of SRI into what it considered ‘mainstream’ rice science, without acknowledging the source of these ideas.

In 2005, Willem Stoop and I published a paper on the SRI controversy [32], pointing out that the adversarial rice scientists were using non-SRI knowledge and perspective to oppose the international reality of SRI and were mistakenly applying non-SRI rice growth and crop yield models to judge the performance and potentials of SRI.

During the following years and up until recently, I was involved with the SRI community in writing many joint papers with SRI colleagues including with Willem Stoop on implications for agronomics research [33, 34] and guest editing with Norman Uphoff, two special issues of journals on SRI knowledge and experience [35, 36].

Around 2009, I began increasingly to promote CA-based SRI because the traditional SRI approach does not include the ecological underpinnings of the three interlinked practices of CA. I have continued to promote CA-SRI, and my most recent SRI promotion activity has been to backstop the SRI-LMB multi-country project led by Abha Mishra at the Asian Institute of Technology over the past six years since 2013.[37]

I had to take sick leave from May 2004 until my retirement from FAO in June 2005 due to serious illness. This enforced rest gave me an opportunity to catch up on reading regarding the global food and agriculture system and sustainable agriculture development. I also dug more deeply into learning more about what were donors’ priorities with regard to sustainable agriculture and intensification.

To me, the world of agriculture and of agricultural development appeared to be in a real mess, and ‘Green Revolution’ agriculture with its intensive use of tillage and agrochemicals and the associated food system controlled by multi-national corporations was continuing to cause land degradation and pollution, destruction of the environment, and discrimination against smallholders, seed and food sovereignty, disrupting local family-based value chains, and biasing public sector research and development institutions.

By the time that I retired from FAO in June 2005, I found myself working as an activist for sustainable agricultural development based on the promotion of CA and SRI as described already. At a meeting on soil erosion organized by the Tropical Agriculture Association (TAA) in London in 2005, I met up with Francis Shaxson, and we both lamented at the fact that the root causes of soil erosion and agricultural land degradation were being misunderstood by much of the scientific and development community, including donor agencies. Blame was unfortunately and mistakenly being directed towards the symptoms.

In January 2006, I took over the chairmanship of the TAA in the UK. I persuaded Francis Shaxson to become the Convener of the TAA’s Land Husbandry Group. Francis and I decided to do something about the lack of understanding regarding the root causes of agricultural land degradation and ecological basis of sustainable soil management and land productivity. We decided to facilitate the sharing of the scientific and empirical evidence of the solutions in the form of Conservation Agriculture systems and practices that were being applied by small-scale and large-scale farmers in developing regions, globally.

An opportunity arose in December 2006 when the Gates Foundation provided me some funds to organize an international workshop on The Importance of Improving Soil Conditions for Water, Plant Nutrients, and Biological Productivity for Agricultural Growth.[38] This workshop was held at Newcastle University in March 2007.[iii] International participants included donor agencies, foundations, NGOs, ICRAF, ICARDA, ICRISAT, TSBF-CIAT, FAO, CIRAD, EMBRAPA, FARA, NRI, IIED, Rothamsted International, and universities.

This led to planning a larger conference at FAO in Rome in July 2008 that brought together international experts in CA, donors, and international organizations to prepare a global plan of action to mainstream Conservation Agriculture. It established a Global Conservation Agriculture Community of Practice (CA-CoP) to facilitate the globalization of CA.[39] In January 2009, the CA-CoP platform hosted by FAO was launched with me serving as its Moderator, a position that I continue to hold till this day.

Since the Rome conference in 2008, most of my time has been spent working with on promoting the adoption and spread of CA globally. This has involved operating and expanding the global reach of the CA-CoP, working internationally with CA colleagues.[iv] Activities include: (a) facilitating CA adoption and spread through field work (including training farmers and extension workers in CA) with FAO, NGOs, TAA and CA networks such as ECAF, ACT and CA-UK; (b) writing case studies [e.g. 40, 41, 42], publishing papers and studies [e.g. 43, 44, 45, 46, 47], editing books and publishing book chapters [e.g. 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54]; (c) facilitating and attending CA conferences, making presentations on CA; and (d) teaching CA to post-graduate students.

Since 2008-09, the area under CA worldwide has increased from 107 m ha to 205 m ha (in 2018/19), an increase of almost 93%, and corresponding to an annual rate of increase of some 10 m ha. Some 50% of the global CA area is located in the Global South with the rest in the Global North.[54] The successful experiences of CA uptake worldwide have offered important generic lessons about sustainable production systems [55] which are adding further momentum to achieving the goal set by the 8ᵗʰ World Congress on CA of transforming 50% of the global cropland area (some 700 m ha) into CA systems by 2030.[56]

I am convinced that the paradigm of CA (in conjunction with ecologically-sound practices such as SRI and IPM) is robust both in concept and in practice and is increasingly becoming integrated as a foundation for other alternate agriculture approaches such as organic agriculture, agroecology, and regenerative agriculture, offering the advantages of higher and stable yields with lower seed rates, fewer external nutrient inputs, less requirements for water, pesticides and labor, and greater resilience to weather stresses.

Internationally, CA has already enabled millions of organic and non-organic farmers, small and large, to sustainably improve their land productivity and livelihoods. This is stimulating them to become more innovative and creative, and to make more of their own decisions regarding environmental stewardship. Also, given that crop production systems can be made to operate sustainably without the need to integrate farmed animals means that CA can also provide an ecological foundation for veganic agroecology producers to serve consumers who increasingly prefer to live on whole-food plant-based diets.

However, alternate agricultural paradigms cannot solve all global problems in the food and agriculture system! The global production output from all different kinds of production systems combined is responding to the demands that originate from our corporate food system based on the size of the population and its distribution, incomes, diets, and lifestyles.

The world already produces enough food to feed twice its current population, but much of the surplus food is fed to raise animals at industrial scales, and a substantial proportion of the food produced is wasted or lost post-harvest. The current corporate food system promotes diet patterns that are high in processed food, sugar, salt, oil, and animal-based foods, and at the same time low in nutritious whole-plant foods. One of the consequences of the food system’s promotion of this diet is the exponential rise in obesity and diet-related diseases globally, co-existing with high rates of chronic hunger and malnutrition.

One of the key drivers of the dominant industrial agriculture paradigm of ‘Green Revolution’, along with the interconnected crises we are facing, is the neoliberal capitalist economic system. This system has an in-built propensity to concentrate power, wealth and resources into fewer and fewer corporate hands that are unaccountable to society or nature. This has led to the current corporate food regime. Consequently, structural changes are needed alongside changes in the nature of production systems, food demands, diets, and lifestyle if we are to succeed in co-creating a food and agriculture system that is ecologically sustainable and that respects the rights of all humans, other animals, and nature.

My development efforts in recent years have been increasingly focused on this greater and quite complex goal.[57] Possibly, the ongoing global confrontation with the corona virus may trigger some desirable changes in how we view ecological and social environments and hence how our agricultural production systems can better contribute to greater sustainability and resilience and to healthier food and a healthier planet.


[1] Kassam, A.H., Kowal, J.M., and Sarraf, S. (1977). Climatic adaptability of crops. Present and Potential Land Use by Agroecological Zones Project. Land and Water Development Division, FAO, Rome.

[2] Kassam, A. H. (1977). Net biomass production and yield of crops: Present and Potential Land Use by Agroecological Zones Project. Land and Water Development Division, FAO, Rome.

[3] Kassam, A. H. (1979). Multiple cropping and rainfed crop productivity in Africa. In: Report on the Second FAO/UNFPA Expert Consultation on Land Resources for Populations of the Future, 123-195. 4-6 December 1979, FAO, Rome. 

[4] Doorenbos, J. and Kassam, A.H. (1979). Yield response to water. Irrigation and Drainage Paper 33. FAO, Rome.

[5] Higgins, G.M., Kassam, A.H. et al. (1978-81). Agroecological Zones Project Report. Methodology and Results for Africa (Vol. 1), West Asia (Vol. 2), South and Central America (Vol. 3), Southeast Asia (Vol. 4). World Soil Resources Report 48. FAO, Rome.

[6] Potential Population Supporting Capacities of Lands in the Developing World: Land Resources for Population of the Future. FAO/UNFPA/IIASA. 1982 (G.M. Higgins, A.H. Kassam, L. Naiken, G.W. Fischer and M.M. Shah). 

[7] Kassam, A.H., van Velthuizen, H.T., Higgins, G.M., Christoforides, A., Voortman, R.L. and Spiers, B. (1981-82) Land Suitability Assessment for Rainfed Crops in Mozambique.  9 volumes of field documents Nos. 32-37. Land and Water Use Planning Project FAO/UNDP:MOZ/75/011, Maputo, Mozambique.

[8] Brammer, H., Antoine, J., Kassam, A.H. and van Velthuizen, H.T. (1985-86). Land Resources Appraisal of Bangladesh for Development Planning. 11 volumes of technical reports. Agricultural Adviser Project FAO/UNDP:BGD/81/035, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[9] Kassam, A.H., van Velthuizen, H.T., Fischer, G.W. and Shah, M.M. (1991). Agroecological Land Resources for Agricultural Development Planning: A Case Study of Kenya. Main Reports and 8 technical annexes. World Soil Resources Report 71, FAO, Rome.

[10] Pieri, C., Evers, G., Landers, L., O'Connell, P. and Terry, E. (2002). No-Till Farming for Sustainable Rural Development. Agriculture and Rural Development Working Paper, World Bank, Washington DC.

[11] Kassam, A.H., Derpsch, R. and Friedrich, T. (2020). Development of Conservation Systems globally. In: A.H. Kassam (ed,), Advances in Conservation Agriculture: Systems and Science, 31-86. Burleigh Dodds, Cambridge, UK.

[12] Kassam, A.H. (2002). An overview of social science research in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. UNESCO International Social Science Journal, 177: 441-462.

[13] Stoop, W. A. (2005). The System of Rice Intensification (SRI): Results from exploratory field research in Ivory Coast -- Research needs and prospects for adaptation to diverse production systems of resource-poor farmers. WARDA, Bouake, Ivory Coast.

[14] de Janvry, A. and Kassam, A.H. (2005). Regional approach to research by the CGIAR and its partners. Experimental Agriculture. 40(2): 1-21.

[15] Janssen, W., Kassam, A.H. and de Janvry, A. (2004). Regional approach to setting research priorities and implementation: Towards satisfying national, regional and international concerns? Journal of Agriculture and Food Information. Volume 5.

[16] Harwood, R.R., Kassam, A.H., Gregersen, H.M. and Fereres, E. (2005). Natural Resources Management Research in the CGIAR. Experimental Agriculture. 40 (4): 375-397

[17] Harwood, R.R., Place, F., Kassam, A.H. and Gregersen, H.M. (2006). International public goods through integrated natural resources management research in the CGIAR partnerships. Experimental Agriculture, 42(4):1-10.

[18] Fereres, E. and Kassam, A.H. (2003). Water and the CGIAR: A strategic framework. Water International, 28(1): 122-129.

[19] Cernea, M.M. and Kassam, A.H. (eds.) (2006). Researching the Culture in Agri-Culture: Social Research for International Development. Wallingford: CABI. 2006

[20] Kassam, A.H. and Barat, S. (2004) Food safety considerations for CGIAR research. Journal of Agriculture and Food Information, Volume 5.

[21] Kassam, A.H., Gregersen, H.M., Fereres, E., Javier, E.Q., Harwood, R.R., de Janvry, A. and Cernea, M.M. (2004). A framework for enhancing and guarding the relevance and quality of science: The case of the CGIAR. Experimental Agriculture, 40(1) 1-20.

[22] Stoop, W.A. (2002). A study and comprehensive analysis of the causes for low adoption rates of agricultural research results in West and Central Africa: Possible solutions leading to greater future impacts -- The Mali and Guinea case studies. (SDR/iSC:IAR/02/21). FAO, Rome.

[23] Brader, L. (2002). A Study about the Causes for Low Adoption Rates of Agriculture Research Results in West and Central Africa: Possible Solutions Leading to Greater Future Impacts. (SDR/iSC:IAR/02/22). FAO, Rome.

[24] Kassam, A.H. and Barat, S. (2003). Information communication technologies and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research: A discussion. Journal of Agriculture and Food Information, 4(4) 35-64.

[25] Kassam, A.H. and Barat, S. (2003). Food safety considerations for CGIAR research. Journal of Agriculture and Food Information, 4(30) 27-71.  

[26] Harwood, R. R. and Kassam, A.H. (eds.) (2003). Research Towards Integrated Natural Resources Management: Examples of Research Problems, Approaches and Partnerships in Action in the CGIAR. Rome: FAO.

[27] Shaxson, F. and Barber, R. (2003). Optimizing soil moisture for plant production: The significance of soil porosity. FAO Soils Bulletin, 79. FAO, Rome.  

[28] FAO (2003). Improving Soil Moisture Management for Enhanced Crop Production. FAO-AGL, and University of Teramo, Italy.

[29] Kassam, A. H. (2008). Rethinking Agriculture, invited keynote speech to TAA-SW Group AGM, 8 January 2008, Exeter. Agriculture for Development, Issue 1, TAA, UK.

[30] Kassam, A.H. (2011). The Future of Farming: What Needs to Change? Sixth Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture, Reading University, UK.

[31] Stoop, W.A., Uphoff, N. and Kassam, A.H. (2002). The system of rice intensification (SRI) developed in Madagascar: Reflection on possible significance for agricultural research strategies. Agricultural Systems, 71: 249-274.  

[32] Stoop, W.A. and Kassam, A.H. (2005). The SRI controversy: A response. Field Crops Research, 91: 357-360.

[33] Stoop, W. and Kassam, A.H. (2005). The System of Rice Intensification (SRI): Implications for agronomic research. Tropical Agriculture Association Newsletter, 26(2): 22-24.

[34] Stoop, W.A., Adam, A. and Kassam, A.H. (2009). Comparing rice production systems: A challenge for agronomic research and for the dissemination of knowledge-intensive farming practices. Agricultural Water Management 96: 1491–1501.

[35] Uphoff, N. and Kassam, A.H. (guest editors) (2011). Paddy and Water Management with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Special Issue of Paddy and Water Environment, Vol. 9(1).

[36] Uphoff, N., Kassam, A.H. and Thakur, A. (guest editors) (2013). Water Saving and Productivity with SRI Management for Rice. Special Issue of Taiwan Water Conservancy.

[37] Wijayaratna, C.M. (2019). Sustainaing and enhancing the momentum for innovation and learning around the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in the Lower Mekong Basin (SRI-LMB): Project Achievement and The Way Forward. ACISAI Centre, AIT, Bangkok, Thailand.

[38] Kassam, A.H. and Shaxson, F. (2007). The Importance of Improving Soil Conditions for Water, Plant Nutrients and Biological Productivity to Sustain Agricultural Growth under Rising Population Pressure in a Changing Climate: Record of the Workshop organised by the Tropical Agriculture Association in collaboration with the World Agroforestry Centre, Association of Applied Biologists, and the Universities of Newcastle, Reading, Nottingham and Durham, 30-31 March 2007, Newcastle University.

[39] FAO, 2008. An International Technical Workshop: Investing on Sustainable Crop Intensification – The Case for Improving Soil Health.  Rome: FAO. Integrated Crop Management Vol 6.  ISBN 978-92-3-106323-1, 134 pp.

[40] Owenya, M. Z., Mariki, W.L., Kienzle, J., Friedrich, T. and Kassam, A.(2011). Conservation Agriculture (CA) in Tanzania: The case of the Mwangaza BCA Farmer Field School (FFS), Rhotia Village, Karatu District, Arusha. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1):145-152.

[41] Marongwe, S. L., Kwazira, K., Jenrich, M., Thierfelder, C., Kassam, A. and Friedrich, T. (2011). An African success: the case of conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1): 153-161.

[42] Kassam, A.H., Kueneman, E., Kebe, E., Ouedrago, S. and Youdeowei, A. (2009). Enhancing crop-livestock systems in Conservation Agriculture for sustainable production intensification: A farmer discovery process going to scale in Burkina Faso. Integrated Crop Management, Vol.7. FAO, Rome.

[43] Kassam, A.H., Friedrich, T., Shaxson, F. and Pretty, J. (2009).The spread of Conservation Agriculture: Justification, sustainability and uptake. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 7(4): 292-320.

[44] Kassam, A.H., Friedrich, T., Shaxson, F., Bartz, H., Mello, I., Kienzle, J. and Pretty, J. (2014). The spread of Conservation Agriculture: Policy and institutional support for adoption and uptake. Field Science Research Reports, Vol. 7.

[45] Kassam, A.H., Friedrich, T., Derpsch, R. and Kienzle, J. (2015). Overview of the worldwide spread of Conservation Agriculture. Field Actions Science Reports, Vol. 8. .

[46] González-Sánchez, E.J., Moreno-García, M., Kassam, A.H., Holgado-Cabrera, A., Triviño-Tarradas, P., Carbonell-Bojollo, R., Pisante, M., Veroz-González, O and Basch, G. (2017). Conservation Agriculture: Making Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptability Real in Europe. European Conservation Agriculture Federation (ECAF), 154 pp.

[47] Gonzalez-Sanchez, E.J., Mkomwa, S., Conway, G., Kassam, A., Ordonez-Fernandez, R., Moreno-Garcia, M., Repullo-Ruiberriz, de Torres, M., Gil-Ribes, J., Basch, G., Veroz-Gozalez, O., Trivino-Tradas, P., Holgado-Cabrera, A., Miranda-Fuentes, A., and Carbonell-Bojollo, R. (2018). Making Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptability Real in Africa with Conservation Agriculture. European Conservation Agriculture Federation (ECAF) and African Conservation Tillage Network (ACT). 143 pp.

[48] FAO (2011) Save and Grow: A Policymaker’s Guide to the Sustainable Intensification of Smallholder Crop Production. FAO, Rome.

[49] Kassam, A.H., Basch, G., Friedrich, T., Shaxson, F., Goddard, T., Amado, T., Crabtree, B., Hongwen, L., Mello, I., Pisante, M. and Mkomwa, S. (2013). Sustainable soil management is more than what and how crops are grown. In: R. Lal and Stewart, R.A (eds.) Principles of Soil Management in Agro-ecosystems. Advances in Soil Science. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. pp 337-400

[50] Jat, R.A., Sahrawat, K.L. and Kassam, A.H. (eds.) (2014). Conservation Agriculture: Global Prospects and Challenges. CABI, Wallingford, UK.

[51] Kassam, A.H., Mkomwa, S. and Friedrich, T. (eds.) (2017). Conservation Agriculture for Africa: Building Resilient Farming Systems in a Changing Climate. CABI, Wallingford, UK.

[52] Kassam, A.H. (ed.) (2020). Advances in Conservation Agriculture: Volume 1 Systems and Science; Volume 2 Practice and Benefits. Burleigh Dodds, Oxford, UK.

[53] Kassam, A.H. (ed.) (2022). Advances in Conservation Agriculture: Volume 1 Systems and Science; Volume 3 Adoption and Spread. Burleigh Dodds, Cambridge, UK.

[54] Mkomwa, S. and Kassam, A.H. (ed.) (2022). Conservation Agriculture in Africa: Climate- Smart Agriculture Development. CABI, Wallingford, UK.

[55] Kassam, A.H., Friedrich, T. and Derpsch, R. (2021).  Successful experiences and learnings from Conservation Agriculture Worldwide. Agronomy, 12, 769.

[56] ECAF (2021). Declaration of the 8ᵗʰ World Congress on Conservation Agriculture. European Conservation Agriculture Federation.


[57] Kassam, A. and Kassam, L. (2020) Rethinking Ford and Agriculture: New Ways Forward. Elsevier.

[i] It was only much later in 2019/20 when I was involved in editing a book with my daughter Laila on Rethinking Food and Agriculture: New Ways Forward (published by Elsevier in 2020) [54] that I discovered what may have been some of the political neoliberal reasons that had been driving the incorporation of the ‘Green Revolution’ ideology into international agriculture development agenda by the USA and its corporate foundations, and the Western multilateral and bilateral donors.

[ii] The work on CA was associated with Jose Benites in the FAO Land and Water Division, and later with Theodor Friedrich, in the Agricultural Services Division and in the Plant Production and Protection Division. This included editing CA-related documents and papers at FAO that were being overseen by Jose Benites in the first half of 2000 [e.g., 27, 28] and subsequently with Theodor Friedrich in the second half of 2000 and beyond.

[iii] The meeting was attended by several international CA experts, including Theodor Friedrich, John Landers, Mushtaq Gill, and Francis Forest, and a good representation of natural resource management scientists, international organizations and donors. Norman Uphoff and Willem Stoop were there, contributing SRI and development perspectives.

[iv] These include particularly Theodor Friedrich, Emilio Gonzalez-Sanchez, Gottlieb Basch, Antonio Holgado-Cabrera, Paula Triviño-Tarradas, Julio Román Vázquez, Wolfgang Sturny, Bernhard Streit, Michele Pisante, Jana Epperlein, Gerard Rass, Boris Boincean, Stephane Boulakia, Olivier Husson, Jean-Claude Legoupil, Rabah Lahmar, Bruno Vadon, Willem Stoop, Jose Benites, Josef Kienzle, Eric Kueneman, Sandra Corsi, Francis Shaxson, Andrew MacMillan, Andrew Bennett, Tony Reynolds, Tony Gent, John Cherry, Brian Sims, Jules Pretty, Hugh Brammer, David Coates, Tom Goddard, Scott Day, Julian Dumanski, Sjoerd Duiker, Don Reicosky, David Montgomery, Peter Hobbs, Pat Wall, Norman Uphoff, Dick Harwood, Karim Maredia, Cary Clark, Saidi Mkomwa, Peter Kuria, Martin Bwalya, Monty Jones, Rachid Mrabet, Oussama El Gharaas, Kofi Boa, Brahim Kebe, Souleymane Nacro, Jose Dambiro, Lungowe Sepo Marongwe, Marietha Owenya, Wilfred Mariki, Christian Thierfelder, Michael Jenrich, Collins Nkatiko, Hendrik Smith, Dirk Lange, NeBambi Lutaladio, Rolf Derpsch, Herbert Bartz, Marie Bartz, Ivo Mello, Rafael Fuentes, Ademir Calegari, John Landers, Augusto Araujo, Joao Carlos de Moraes Sá, Telmo Amado, Ricardo Ralisch, Glaucio Roloff, Roberto Peiretti, Juliana Albergengo, Aziz Nurbekov, Hafiz Muminjanov, Askersho Zevarshoev, Mekhlis Suleimeno, Murat Karabayev, Neonila Martyniuk, Berthold Hansman, Isam Bashour, Faten Adada, Kassem Juni, Atef Hadad, Yaser Musa, Baqir Lalani, Mohammed Asadi, Mushtaq Gill, Raj Paroda, Rattan Lal, Yashpal Saharawat, Ram Jat, Inder Abrol, Harminder Singh, Mangi Lal Jat, Pramod Sahu, Abha Mishra, Amod Thakur, Naveen Patidar, Enamul Haque, Li Hongwen, He Jin, Yuji Niino, Tim Reeves, Bill Crabtree, John Rochecouste, Jeff Tullberg, Richard Bell, John Dixon, John Baker, plus many others including the subscribers to the Global Conservation Agriculture Community of Practice (Global CA-CoP).

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