Zero-tillage in the South
Rod Harbinson
Keywords:  Small-scale farming, Agricultural inputs, Agrochemicals, Non-governmental organizations, Monsanto.
Correct citation: Harbinson,R. (2001), "Zero-tillage in the South." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 46, p. 13.

Conservation tillage started in the USA largely as a method to combat erosion on American farmland. The concept was tried in parts of Europe but never caught on because of pest problems, particularly with slugs, which thrived on the moisture trapped in surface crop residues.

In recent years the practice has been promoted in countries throughout the world by agrochemical companies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and some non-governmental organizations . Claims are made that the practice not only reduces erosion but can also increase crop yields and reduce the labour time of Southern farmers in field preparation. Instead of time consuming weeding, herbicides are used instead, a practice which appeals to some farmers.

The FAO has been promoting zero-tillage for ten years through its Conservation Agriculture Programme . So far focused on Latin America, the Programme has now been expanded to include Central Asia and Africa. Zero-tillage is one element in the Conservation Agriculture toolbox along with direct seeding, varied crop rotation systems and application of pesticides and fertilizers, which seek to reduce erosion, weed and pest problems.

Monsanto continues to be the most vigorous corporate advocate of zero-tillage with promotional programmes throughout the world. It regularly offers financial startup incentives to encourage farmers to adopt its chemicals. Initially targeting large-scale farming in countries such as Argentina, in recent years it has been working with governments and organizations to promote its products to small-scale farmers throughout the developing world. In countries that have commercialized genetically modified crops, Monsanto advocates use of genetically modified (GM) seed with its chemicals to achieve zero-tillage (see also the article in Monitor No. 43). Since the recent expiry of Monsanto's patents on glyphosate (Roundup) in the USA and Canada, this package has helped Monsanto protect sales of its number one product.

In the Philippines, Monsanto is working with the government Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) to supply chemicals and training to peasant farmers relocated to marginalized mountain regions. Between 1995 and 1997, sales of Roundup in the region increased sixfold. Monsanto's operations have been criticized by organizations in the country. In 1999 the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE) reported that Monsanto was offering rewards to communities and dealers that achieved high sales of glyphosate herbicide. The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) - the largest peasant organization in the Philippines, is a staunch critic of the CARP programme because it says it diverts attention from the central issue of land reform and makes small-scale farmers dependent on expensive modern agricultural methods.

Alternatives in the Philippines to Monsanto's recommendations are well established. For example MASIPAG, a successful network of farmers associations has seen a remarkable rise in membership since it started in 1985. Using native rice varieties with organic farming methods, it has attracted poor farmers frustrated with the costly inputs required to grow hybrid varieties.

The Pesticides Action Network (PAN), a worldwide network of groups campaigning against the use of harmful agrochemicals is concerned, among other things, by their damaging effect on health particularly in developing countries where lack of education and information about toxicity, application and handling is widespread. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that on average three million people suffer severe pesticide poisoning every year, and there are more than 20,000 pesticide related deaths.

Rod Harbinson
Editor Biotechnology and Development Monitor

Related article in this issue
R. Harbinson: Conservation tillage and climate change

FAO Agriculture21, Magazine spotlight - zero tillage: http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0101sp1.htm

Monsanto: http://www.monsanto.com

Kuyek, D., Pesticide Action Network - Asia and the Pacific. Correspondence, 2000.

Dr Medina. C. P., MASIPAG (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development). Interview, 2001.

Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK: http://www.pan-uk.org

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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