Agriculture and Environment: Sugarcane

Better Management Practices: Soil Conservation

Sugarcane is currently grown on many steep slopes and hillsides (as in Northeast Brazil and many other regions).

Many of these areas should be taken out of production because of the high rates of soil erosion that result from cultivating them.


In a number of instances, removing these areas from production and replanting them to trees (e.g., fruit, nuts, wood) would actually encourage increased production in the adjacent, better-suited agricultural lands.

Focus on more productive areas
Increased attention of producers on their better lands would tend to increase total production more than when producers focus on reducing losses on poorer soils.

Put another way, producers will increase overall production when they focus on raising the average production level on the better lands rather than trying to obtain marginal production levels on less-productive lands.

Reforesting hillsides
In addition, reforesting hillsides would improve overall water retention and hydrology and provide more gradual water release, which could improve yields and reduce the need for supplement irrigation.

Employing right conservation techniques
At the very least, implementing standard conservation techniques, such as contour ploughing and terracing, in many parts of the world would decrease soil erosion and degradation and actually allow soil to be rebuilt over time.

Such practices would also contribute to greater water retention. Soils should be covered at all times to keep topsoil from washing away, so that soil composition and vitality are not degraded. Any areas of slope should be planted before periods of heavy rains and irrigated, if necessary, until the rains arrive.

Riparian areas should be left intact so that the plantings are not washed out, the soil eroded, biodiversity lost, and wildlife corridors destroyed. Additional practices can be incorporated into overall management strategies to improve productivity in the short, medium, and long term.

These include crop rotation (e.g., rice in Florida), green manuring, and enriched fallowing or nutrient banking. These practices should be considered as investments for future savings and increased profits, as they will reduce the need for purchased agrochemicals in the future.

The benefits of Enriched fallowing
Enriched fallowing, for example, uses deep-rooted perennials to draw nutrients up to the surface where they can be utilised more effectively by shallow-rooted commercial crops such as sugarcane. Several conservation strategies could contribute to greater income for sugar plantations.

The planting of fruit trees, for example, would not only provide food for wildlife, it would also give sugar plantations the ability to do value-added processing of jams, jellies, and juices. Cellulose from trees grown on such areas could be fed into paper pulp processing plants along with bagasse to make the quality and consistency of paper more uniform.

Credits

Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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