Issues Magazine

Improving Agriculture with Zero Tillage Cropping Systems in Iraq

By Colin Piggin

Australia has been involved in the rehabilitation of agriculture after wars and natural disasters in countries such as Cambodia, East Timor and Afghanistan. The impact of these efforts, such as those underway in Iraq, has been quite astounding, and often includes unforeseen benefits.

Part of the Fertile Crescent, birthplace of settled agriculture some 10,000 years ago, Iraq has a deep but turbulent history. Straddling ancient trade routes, it has witnessed waves of invaders from the Persians to the Ottomans, finally gaining formal independence from Britain in 1932. However, ongoing violence and insecurity, destruction of infrastructure, a bureaucracy unable to function properly and international isolation have devastated the country.

From Bread Basket to Food Deficit

From being an agricultural bread basket, the country now has a severe food deficit. Demand for wheat is around 5 million tonnes per year, or 160 kg/person for the population of 31 million. Production in recent favourable years was 2.5 million tonnes, with production halved in the 1999–2000, 2000–/01 and 2008–09 droughts. Self-sufficiency requires a doubling of yields, but the opportunity to do this is clearly there. Average yields of wheat and barley are less than one-quarter of their potential.

Introducing Conservation Cropping

In Iraq and most of the Middle East, the staple cereal and pulse crops are grown in drylands without irrigation, using heavy cultivation and stubble burning. However, yields have been gradually declining.

In contrast, yields in developed countries have increased by 3% per year due to improved crop varieties and better farming practices, including early sowing and “conservation cropping”. This involves minimal soil disturbance and stubble retention to reduce erosion and nutrient loss and conserve soil moisture and organic matter.

Zero Tillage Adds Zeros to Profits

Conservation cropping is facilitated by zero tillage, where a special seeder sows crop seeds with fertiliser into narrow slits in the soil, through the stubble from the previous crop, in otherwise undisturbed land. There is no need for burning or ploughing. Farmers started to use zero tillage around 40 years ago and, because of increases in productivity, profitability and sustainability, this method has now replaced traditional ploughing on more than one million square kilometres in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the US.

Elsewhere, however, there is little awareness of this technology and its benefits, especially in the Middle East – until now.

Working in Iraq

Conservation cropping is being developed and promoted in a project in northern Iraq to improve rain-fed crop yields, profitability and sustainability, thanks to support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

The Iraq Ministry of Agriculture and University of Mosul are helped by the universities of Adelaide and Western Australia and the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia, all led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) with headquarters in Aleppo, northern Syria.

The Australian partners have advanced scientific understanding of dryland crop production and long experience with development and extension of zero tillage systems, and provide crucial expertise to the efforts. There is also satisfaction and harmony that Australia is providing better crop management systems back to the region that is the centre of origin and source of our major temperate cereal and legume crops.

Working in Iraq is not straightforward, though, so special arrangements are made. Iraqis implement the project in Iraq and can easily visit ICARDA regularly to report and plan activities and undertake training. Some research and demonstration activities are undertaken in Syria close to the Iraqi border, where technology development and training can proceed in a similar but safe and secure environment.

The Benefits Become Clear

In one long-term trial in Syria, lentil yields in 2007–08 doubled with zero tillage and early sowing compared with conventional ploughing and late sowing, along with a cost saving of US$40 per hectare from not having to plough and harrow. The barley crop grown in the same trial in 2008–09 also produced higher yields with zero tillage and early sowing.

Farmer demonstrations introducing zero tillage in northern Iraq have been carried out on 52 hectares in a dozen locations since 2006. Six Iraqi farmers have already adopted the technology, growing 500 hectares of wheat using a locally made seeder that was modified for zero tillage. They found that their zero tillage crops performed much better than those of their neighbours. Just over the border, in Syria, more than 40 farmers have adopted the technology over 2000 hectares.

Tools for the Job

Because adapted zero tillage seeders are not available in this part of the world, the project team has worked with machinery manufacturers in Iraq and Syria and developed machinery to suit local conditions, such as greater width for extensive areas in Iraq, and spring-loaded tines for rocky land in Syria.

More than 15 prototypes were made, and these have worked well in research trials and farmer demonstrations. Costing US$1500–$5000, these are affordable to farmers and seeding contractors. With encouraging interest and initiative, farmers in Iraq and Syria have been modifying their own seeders, following visits and training courses at ICARDA, at a cost of $300–$600 per machine, and these have performed excellently.

Building the capacity of Iraqi project managers, research and technology-transfer scientists as well as the farmers has been a key part of this project. To date, more than 100 research staff have received specialist training, and farmer exchange visits between Iraq and Syria have proved very beneficial for raising awareness and sharing experiences.

Zero Tillage has Taken Root

Zero tillage is now being taken up in northern Iraq and Syria. As well as similar or improved yields compared with conventional ploughing, zero tillage also lowers machinery and fuel costs, and improves the soil through better soil structure, porosity, nutrient recycling and moisture retention, more organic matter and less erosion.

Increases in fuel prices are also encouraging adoption as farmers look for cost savings to remain viable. Thanks in part to this project, productivity, profitability and sustainability of farming in Iraq are looking up, providing hope that food deficits can be reduced.