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Conservation agriculture for sustainable intensification in South Asia


Agriculture’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals requires climate-smart and profitable farm innovations. In the past decade, attention has been given to conservation agriculture as a ‘sustainable intensification’ strategy, although a lack of evidence-based consensus on the merits of conservation agriculture prevails in the context of intensive smallholder farming in South Asia. A meta-analysis using 9,686 paired site–year comparisons representing different indicators of cropping-system performance suggest significant (P < 0.05) benefits when conservation-agriculture component practices are implemented either separately or in tandem. For example, zero tillage with residue retention had a mean yield advantage of 5.8%, a water use efficiency increase of 12.6%, an increase in net economic return of 25.9% and a reduction of 12–33% in global warming potential, with more-favourable responses on loamy soils and in maize–wheat systems. Results suggest that there are opportunities to maximize expected benefits, and policymakers and development practitioners should continue to be appraised of the potential of CA for contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals in South Asia.

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Fig. 1: Comparison of CA with conventional agricultural practice.
Fig. 2: Performance of CA across the cropping systems.
Fig. 3: Effect of soil texture on the performance of CA.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author on a case-by-case basis. The on-station data sources have been listed in the Supplementary Information. Source Data for Figs. 1–3 are provided as Source Data files.

Code availability

The reproducible code for the analyses is available at; common code for generating figures is available at


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We thank the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Government of India for Window 3 grant to CIMMYT, the CGIAR Research Programs on Wheat Agri-Food Systems (CRP WHEAT) and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) for funding this research. CCAFS’s work is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors and through bilateral funding agreements. For details, please visit Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the associated and/or supporting institutions/funders. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.L.J. conceptualized, designed and coordinated the work. M.L.J., D.C., M.K.G. and D.S.R. acquired the data. D.C. and D.S.R. analysed the data and interpreted results. J.K.L. supervised and drafted the work, interpreted results and revised the manuscript. A.M. and B.G. interpreted results and revised the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Mangi Lal Jat.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, results, Tables 1–10, Figs. 1 and 2, note and references.

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Source Data Fig. 2

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Source Data Fig. 3

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Jat, M.L., Chakraborty, D., Ladha, J.K. et al. Conservation agriculture for sustainable intensification in South Asia. Nat Sustain 3, 336–343 (2020).

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