Resorting to conservation agriculture would not only increase crop yield, income and reduce the use of natural resources, but would also confer climate change benefits, according to a study by Indian agricultural scientists and others published in an international journal on Thursday.

The study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability , also showed that conservation agriculture was key to meeting many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, climate action and clean water. Conservation agriculture can offer positive contributions to several SDGs, said M. L. Jat, a Principal Scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the study.

The analysis, which looked at the benefits of conservation agriculture on a variety of cropping systems and environments in South Asia, used data from 9,686 site-year comparisons from across the sub-continent.

Apart from Jat’s colleagues at CIMMYT, scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), International Rice Research Institute, the University of California, Davis and Cornell University, collaborated in the study.

The researchers looked at a variety of agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators — including crop yields, water-use efficiency, economic return, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential — and compared how they correlated with conservation agriculture conditions in smallholder farms and field stations across South Asia.

The study found that zero tillage with residue retention, a conservation agricultural practice, for instance, offered a mean yield advantage of around 6 per cent, provided farmers almost 25 per cent more income, and increased water-use efficiency by about 13 per cent as compared to conventional agricultural practices. More importantly, this combination of practices was found to cut global warming potential of the field by a third.

Agriculture and climate vulnerability

This is also important because agriculture in the subcontinent is known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability. Studies in the past have shown that climate change, with rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns, may cost India 2.8 per cent of its GDP (gross domestic product).

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia will be impacted most by climate change and natural resource degradation,” said ICAR Director-General Trilochan Mohapatra. “Protecting our natural resources for future generations, while producing enough quality food to feed everyone, is our top priority,” said Mohapatra, adding that ICAR along with other stakeholders, has been working to develop and deploy conservation agriculture in India over the past decades.

With the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion, demand for cereals is expected to grow by about 43 per cent between 2010 and 2050. This presents a major challenge for food producers, who need to produce more while minimising greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment, and other natural resources.