Towards Conservation Agriculture systems in Moldova

 As the world population and food production demands rise, keeping agricultural soils and landscapes healthy and productive are of paramount importance to sustaining local and global food security and the flow of ecosystem services to society. The global population, expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, will put additional pressure on the available land area and resources for agricultural production. Sustainable production intensification for food security is a major challenge to both industrialized and developing countries. The paper discusses the results from long-term multi-factorial experiments involving tillage practices, crop rotations and fertilization to study the interactions amongst the treatments in the context of sustainable production intensification in relation to reported performance of crops and soil quality in Conservation Agriculture (CA) systems that are based on no or minimum soil disturbance (no-till seeding and weeding), maintenance of soil mulch cover with crop biomass and cover crops, and diversified cropping systems involving annuals and perennials. The discussions on whether “to mechanically till the soil or not” have been going on for at least a hundred years in Moldova. In Basarabia (the former territory of present day Republic of Moldova) a book entitled “The new system of agriculture” was published in 1909 written by Ovsinschi [1] suggesting that agricultural production systems could use less intensive tillage than the mouldboard plough. The book was translated from Polish to Russian. As an agronomist, Ovsinschi [1] was consulting with farmers in the north of Basarabia and stated that soil tillage should be done no deeper than 5 cm. He also reported on achieving stable yields in the range of 4.2–4.9 t ha−1 for cereal crops for a period of 30 years under such reduced soil tillage conditions. In the same historical period, conventional research on soil tillage had been conducted at the Ploti Experimental Station in Ribnita district across the river Dnister (Transnistria) under the leadership of Trubetchoi [2]. The research reports emphasized the importance of mouldboard ploughing to 25 cm every year in agricultural production systems. While there were large differences in opinion among scientists at that time, it only took a short period of time of mouldboard ploughing to cause visible soil erosion and degradation. The annual reports written in three languages by researchers from the Ploti Experimental Station can be found in the Odessa State University Library, Ukraine [2]. A sensation was created with the publication of Faulkner’s book “Plowman’s Folly” in 1943, which considered that mouldboard plough caused more damage for humanity than all wars together, and that there was nothing wrong with our soils except our interference [3]. Nevertheless, farmers have continued to plough, and with greater intensity particularly after the end of the World War II when motor engines with greater horsepower capacity from armoured vehicles and tanks became widely available. Even the concept of the “Green Revolution” agriculture was, and continues to be, based on the assumed need for intensive tillage with mouldboard ploughs and other forms of intensive tillage equipment for land preparation for sowing and crop establishment, and for weed control. Indeed, intensive tillage is considered to be an integral and necessary part of a set of measures for increasing crop productivity and agricultural output [4], and any accompanying damage to the land or soil in the form of land degradation and soil erosion seems to be accepted as being unavoidable co-lateral consequences that must be accepted by the farmers and the society.371 AIMS Agriculture and Food Volume 1, Issue 4, 369-386. Over the last 10,000 years, humankind has been building its “modern” tillage agriculture production systems on the ruins of the “old” tillage and monoculture concepts at its peril [4-6]. Mechanical soil disturbance with tillage and the complementary practices of maintaining exposed bare soil surfaces, reduced cropping system diversity and monocropping, and heavy dependence on excessive applications of agrochemicals for plant nutrition and plant protection are the causes of wind and water soil erosion and of agro-ecosystem degradation that continues to increase due to droughts and floods associated with climate extremes. In such degrading agricultural environments, production systems that lose top soil faster than the rate at which it can be replaced by Mother Nature are not sustainable ecologically but also economically. Research should therefore compare other methods of cropping with minimum soil disturbance and no-till; however, data on impacts of soil tillage on yield is generally sparse in Moldova. The starting point, in the new qualitative level of research, should focus on the capacity of the whole farming system in providing all the ecosystem and societal services efficiently and with resilience, and not just crop yield. Experimental work should be oriented towards comparison of different farming systems with improved agro-technical measures rather than one-sided comparisons oriented to one or another factor, including soil tillage. This aspect will be discussed later in this article. The objectives of this review are to: (i) report on the research results from the long-term multi-factorial experiments on the influence of different systems of soil tillage in different crop rotations with different systems of soil fertilization at the Selectia Research Institute of Field Crops; (ii) compare the research findings with those from global research on CA systems; and (iii) elaborate on the long-term importance of CA for Moldova. The three key interlinked components in CA systems are: (1) continuous no or minimum mechanical soil disturbance through no-till seeding and weeding; (2) maintenance of soil mulch cover with crop residues, crop stubbles and cover crops; and (3) diversified cropping system with annuals and perennials including legumes, in rotations, and/or sequences, and/or associations. Conservation Agriculture aims to conserve, improve and make more efficient use of natural resources through integrated management of available soil, water and biological resources combined with lower external inputs. Every farm and farmer reflects a unique combination of multiple management decisions. There is a need for another “complimentary/support component” to enable the incorporation of comprehensive agronomic and management practices to fine-tune the functional system [7-9]. Conservation Agriculture practices and systems require site specific adaptation to the different agro-ecologies to benefit farmers and to allow informed choices of technology tailored to local conditions, and taking into account the trade-offs and externalities associated with technology choice in the short and long-term. CA systems have been shown globally to be much more sustainable than conventional tillage agriculture systems, and CA will be used throughout the paper to describe the intended sustainable production system [10,11].

Publication date: 25.03.2021
Author name: 
Boris Boincean