When Australian scientist Dr Stephen Loss returned to northern Iraq in 2019, four years after the end of an ACIAR conservation agriculture project, he was overwhelmed by the warm welcome he received from enthusiastic researchers and farmers who had already resumed their work.
Dr Loss had been project leader for the last three years of a 10-year ACIAR project that raised awareness and promoted adoption of zero-tillage and early sowing of crops throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The project ended in 2015 at the same time as civil unrest expanded in Syria and spread into Iraq.
As the conflict escalated and occupying forces gained control of parts of Iraq, he stayed in communication with some of the farmers, engineers and scientists who had successfully convinced hundreds of farmers across four countries to implement practices such as zero till, early sowing and enhanced seed production.
‘Their resilience is nothing but inspiring. Back in 2014 one farmer and seeder manufacturer emailed me from the basement of his home where he and his family were sheltering from the bombing, not knowing whether they’d be alive in the morning,’ Dr Loss recalls.
‘Militia took control of research facilities, destroyed valuable seed stores and confiscated machinery, as well as damaged workshops and farms, but the commitment and ingenuity of the project participants was remarkable.
‘One Iraqi farmer hid his zero-till seeder from them under a pile of hay and recovered it several months later when it was safe to do so.’
Dr Loss says the continued comradery and contact among the network of project participants during the conflict has been the key to ensuring the sustainability of conservation agriculture in the country.
Between 2005 and 2015, the ACIAR/AusAID three-phase project promoted conservation farming practices to reduce fuel costs, boost crop production and increase farm incomes.
The project was a partnership led by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), initially based in Aleppo, Syria, but later relocated to Amman, Jordan. The Centre worked in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Directorate of Agriculture in the Iraqi governate of Nineveh (and later in the governorates of Anbar, Salahaddin, Kirkuk and Erbil), the University of Mosul and other Iraqi universities, together with the universities of Western Australia, Adelaide and South Australia.
While most people associate the Middle East with desert, the farming areas targeted by the project have a similar climate to southern Australia, with hot dry summers and cold wet winters. Rainfall can be as high as 600–700 mm/year in parts of northern Iraq, but the majority of crops—mainly wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas—receive an average of 300–450 mm/year.
The average Iraqi farm is 20–30 ha, however the project targeted larger landholders with up to 1,000 ha as early adopters because they owned their own machinery and were often influential community leaders.
Dr Loss says the uptake of conservation agriculture over the life of the project was remarkable, given it turned entrenched local farming practices on their head.
‘When we asked farmers to abandon the plough, this was a huge change in mindset because traditionally they tilled two or three times to kill weeds and make a fine seed-bed before sowing,’ he says.
‘But they quickly realised that by using zero till and planting into undisturbed soil immediately after the first autumn rains, evaporation of soil water was reduced and this lengthened the crop’s growing season, which resulted in increased yields while saving fuel.’
Researchers successfully engaged farmers using specific techniques such as on-farm testing of zero-till seeders and permanent demonstration sites to show them the broader agronomic aspects enabled by conservation agriculture.
Farmer surveys estimated the average yield increase in Iraq was about 160 kg/ha. Together with cost savings, this boosted incomes by A$140/ha. The project has also influenced neighbouring Syria, where zero-till wheat yields were increased by 465 kg/ha (31%) and profit boosted by about A$260/ha.
Before the escalation in the Iraqi conflict in 2014 it was estimated that the area of zero till had increased from none to 15,000 ha in seven years, while in Syria about 30,000 ha of commercial crops were sown with zero till.
Although rebuilding has been slow since the Iraqi government regained control of Mosul in July 2017, researchers, farmers and extension workers have managed to regroup, exchange information and build and restore seeders to encourage the expansion of conservation agriculture.
On average, zero-till has increased wheat yield by 160 kg/ha. Together with cost savings, this boosted incomes by A$140/ha.
At Iraq’s Directorate of Agriculture, a new manager and graduate of the University of Western Australia, Ayman Taher, is leading a government-funded wheat development project and using this to demonstrate conservation agriculture principles.
The new Centre for Conservation Agriculture at Mosul University suffered some minor damage and has still not been officially opened, but in 2017 the university held its first conservation agriculture symposium for several years, attracting 70 participants.
The ACIAR project’s former leader in Iraq, Professor Abdulsattar Alrijabo, hosted a second university symposium for more than 100 people where adopter farmers were given prominence for the first time, delivering presentations on seeder manufacturing and their experience of conservation agriculture benefits.
Before the start of the 2018 sowing season, eight zero-till seeders built during the ACIAR project were recovered and provided to farmers in tandem with field demonstrations on farms, leading to an estimated 12,000 ha being sown.
Professor Abdulsattar says while COVID-19 has restricted travel, work continues through student education and video conferencing with extension specialists, farmers and research centres.
‘Last year I enabled an Arabic translation of the book Disc Seeding in Zero Till Farming Systems, in collaboration with the Australian authors and professors from The King Saud University,’ he says.
Dr Loss says many of his former collaborators on the ACIAR project, like Professor Abdulsattar and seeder manufacturer and farmer Sinan Jalili, are keen to boost research and extension efforts in conservation agriculture but this requires further support and funds from the Iraqi government or other sources.
He has been encouraged by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization working on a conservation agriculture project proposal as one of the avenues for the development of sustainable agriculture in Iraq.
A shortage of zero-till seeders remains the main constraint to widespread adoption of conservation agriculture in Iraq.
It’s a shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has restricted travel and prevented the importation of seed boxes and seed metering components from Turkey, according to engineer and farmer Sinan Jalili.
‘During the 2014–17 conflict, my colleague and I lost to bombardment all the imported seeder parts and locally made parts and prototypes, except for the eight seeders which we salvaged and gave to Professor Abdulsattar to lend to farmers,’ says Mr Jalili.
‘Through the difficult years of 2015–16 large zero-till farmers who were previously planting 15,000 donum (1,500 ha) stopped zero-till planting and some abandoned their farms altogether because of the danger.
‘This season modifying RAMA seeders, made in Jordan, to zero till was popular in Mosul and maybe six new big farmers joined in. We are planning to manufacture more of the new tines with resistant blades, more press wheels and contour-following seeding arms but it is difficult.’
Following excellent rainfall in 2018–19 the first rains in northern Iraq fell very late in 2019 and the growing season was very dry. Mr Jalili used his equipment to run an experiment on two 45 ha plots: one ploughed and sown conventionally and the other sprayed with glyphosate then sown with a zero-till seeder.
‘As expected, the wheat yield was better in the zero-tilled plot (2,400 kg/ha) compared to the ploughed plot (2,000 kg/ha) and labour and fuel costs were reduced. Despite the dry conditions, our season was very good in the end and yields varied from 1,600 kg/ha to 4,000 kg/ha depending on location and varieties and seeding time,’ he says.
- Five years after it concluded, an ACIAR project on conservation agriculture continues to have an impact in Iraq and beyond.
- Despite ongoing conflict, Iraqi researchers, manufacturers and farmers are continuing to advance the development of zero till.
- Recovered equipment is being put to use again, with an estimated 12,000 ha planted using zero till for the 2018 growing season in Iraq alone.