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Assessing the long-term impact of conservation agriculture on wheat-based systems in Tunisia using APSIM simulations under a climate change context

Haithem Bahri, Mohamed Annabi, Hatem Cheikh M'Hamed, Aymen Frija
Science of the total environment 2019 v.692 pp. 1223-1233
agricultural conservation practice, agricultural productivity, climate change, conventional tillage, durum wheat, grain yield, hydrology, long term effects, models, mulching, no-tillage, production technology, semiarid zones, soil, soil fertility, soil organic carbon, sustainable agricultural intensification, water erosion, water shortages, water use efficiency, watersheds, Mediterranean region, Tunisia
Several circulation models are forecasting climate changes in the Mediterranean region. Accordingly, it is expected that water scarcity in the region will be higher with drastic shifts of hydrological and erosive watershed responses. In Tunisia, wheat yields have been variable over the years and are lower than the potential yields. In response, the adoption of conservation agriculture (CA), introduced into Tunisia in 1999 to help adaptation to climate change, has resulted in a substantial reduction in agricultural productivity. CA areas increased from 52 ha in 1999 to 14,000 ha in 2015. Using a modelling approach, the present paper evaluates the potential of CA to adapt wheat-based-systems to climate change in Tunisia.The Agricultural Production Systems Simulator (APSIM) model was used to predict the effect of tillage (conventional tillage [CT] vs. zero-tillage [ZT] and soil residue retention [ZT-RR]) on wheat productivity and soil fertility. Two contrasting locations in Tunisia were studied; one semi-arid (Kef) and one sub-humid (Bizerte). Results showed that the sustainable production of durum wheat under climate change conditions in Tunisia is possible through the adoption of CA practices (ZT and ZT-RR) in both sub-humid and semi-arid areas. In fact, mulching (residue retention) is more effective than CT (under semi-arid and sub-humid conditions) in enhancing wheat yield (15%), water use efficiency (18% and 13%) and soil organic carbon accumulation (0.13 t ha⁻¹ year⁻¹ and 0.18 t ha⁻¹ year⁻¹). It is also more effective for soil resilience – preventing water erosion (1.7 t ha⁻¹ year⁻¹ and 4.6 t ha⁻¹ year⁻¹ of soil loss). The present study allowed identification of 260,000 ha as priority areas for CA adoption; this represent one-third of the total cereal area in Tunisia. Appropriate evaluation of the benefits of CA on sustainable agricultural intensification would provide more arguments for effectively supporting CA adoption in Tunisia.