As concerns about sustainable food production and environmental preservation increase worldwide, attention focuses on one of our most vital resources: soil. Essential for agriculture, healthy soil supports not only food security but also numerous ecosystem services critical for sustaining life on Earth. Regrettably, traditional farming methods that involve extensive digging and turning over of the soil are major contributors to soil degradation, leading to a marked decrease in land productivity. A transformative study published in the journal Soil Security sheds light on reversing this trend through the adoption of Conservation Agriculture (CA).

Leading the research, Dr. Rolf Derpsch from Germany, Professor Amir Kassam from the University of Reading, UK, and Dr. Don Reicosky, retired from USDA-ARS, USA, along with Dr. Theodor Friedrich from Germany and a global group of specialists from Brasil, Portugal and Spain, investigate the basic principles nature uses to maintain soil productivity. Their work dives into how these principles can be applied to foster sustainable agricultural systems worldwide.

Dr. Friedrich highlighted, “Using minimal soil disturbance, keeping soil covered with plant residues, and using a variety of crops in rotation are essential for protecting the soil from degradation and for maintaining its productivity.” These foundational elements of Conservation Agriculture mimic natural ecological processes, thereby reducing erosion, improving the soil’s ability to hold water, and increasing soil fertility and biodiversity. Extensive research and practical application across over 205 million hectares globally have shown that CA can reduce the negative impacts of climate change and intensive farming, securing a more sustainable future for food systems.

The team identified plowing and mechanical soil disruption as significant contributors to soil damage. Dr. Friedrich pointed out, “Farming practices that leave the soil bare and lack variety in crops go against nature’s guidelines for maintaining soil health.” Such practices break down soil structure and deplete organic matter essential for water and nutrient cycles. Although these methods may seem beneficial in the short term, they lead to diminished soil fertility and make the land more vulnerable to environmental pressures over time.

Adopting Conservation Agriculture marks a significant shift from traditional farming techniques. It emphasizes the importance of knowledge and innovation for achieving long-term sustainability. Dr. Friedrich also mentioned, “To sustain food production and minimize environmental damage, we must pay close attention to the world’s soils and the natural rules that govern their agricultural productivity.”

The implications of this research are far-reaching. They underscore the need to rethink agricultural practices to be more in line with ecological principles. For those involved in policy, research, and farming, the findings provide clear guidance for action. Promoting policies that encourage Conservation Agriculture practices has the potential to transform agricultural landscapes into productive and sustainable systems.

In conclusion, facing the growing challenges of climate change and increasing food demand, the strategies outlined in Conservation Agriculture present a hopeful future. As Dr. Friedrich emphazises, Conservation Agriculture can accommodate many different practices from conventional to organic farming. But the three principles of CA are the foundation for the sustainability of any land management system. This approach not only aims to protect our soil resources but also to ensure a resilient supply with healthy food. Moving forward, it is crucial for all stakeholders in land management and food production to consider the lessons from nature’s own rules, as detailed in this crucial research.

Journal Reference

Rolf Derpsch, Amir Kassam, Don Reicosky, et al., “Nature’s laws of declining soil productivity and Conservation Agriculture,” Soil Security, 2024. DOI:

About the Authors

Dr. Theodor Friedrich
Conservation Agriculture Expert
Retired FAO Senior Agricultural Officer and Representative

Theodor Friedrich, German national, born in Venezuela, graduated in Göttingen University/Germany with a MSc. in agriculture (Dipl.-Ing. agr.) and a PhD in agricultural engineering (Dr. sc. agr.). Since 1982, he worked in different positions in international agricultural development in the fields of agricultural extension, research and university lecture, as well as directing cooperation projects in Latin America, Europe and Asia. From 1994 to 2012 Friedrich served as Senior Officer of FAO/Rome in agricultural mechanization and sustainable crop production systems, such as regulations for pesticide application technologies and sustainable intensification of agricultural production with Conservation Agriculture, with some 30 years of practical experience in this topic, working in more than 75 countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia, with more than 200 publications. He was involved in the establishment of the term “Conservation Agriculture”, its definition and the creation of the FAO programme promoting Conservation Agriculture globally with publications, conferences, support to regional CA organizations and field projects and the World Congresses on Conservation Agriculture. From 2012 to 2018, he was serving as FAO representative in Cuba, from 2018 until in 2020 in Bolivia. In 2020 he retired to Germany and is still active in the promotion of Conservation Agriculture.