Save Africa’s Soil: More Than Half of Africa’s Arable Land ‘Too Damaged’ for Food Production

January 21st, 2015 - by admin

Busani Bafana / InterPress Service – 2015-01-21 00:44:58

More Than Half of Africa’s Arable Land ‘Too Damaged’ for Food Production

More Than Half of Africa’s Arable Land
‘Too Damaged’ for Food Production

Busani Bafana / InterPress Service

NTUNGAMO DISTRICT, Uganda (January 13, 2015) — A report published last month by the Montpellier Panel — an eminent group of agriculture, ecology and trade experts from Africa and Europe — says about 65 percent of Africa’s arable land is too damaged to sustain viable food production.

The report, “No Ordinary Matter: conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soil“, notes that Africa suffers from the triple threat of land degradation, poor yields and a growing population.

“Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.” — Rattan Lal

The Montpellier Panel has recommended, among others, that African governments and donors invest in land and soil management, and create incentives particularly on secure land rights to encourage the care and adequate management of farmland. In addition, the report recommends increasing financial support for investment on sustainable land management.

The publication of the report comes with the UN declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils, a declaration the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) director general, Jose Graziano da Silva, said was important for “paving the road towards a real sustainable development for all and by all.”

According to the FAO, human pressure on the resource has left a third of all soils on which food production depends degraded worldwide.

Without new approaches to better managing soil health, the amount of arable and productive land available per person in 2050 will be a fourth of the level it was in 1960 as the FAO says it can take up to 1,000 years to form a centimetre of soil.

Soil expert and professor of agriculture at the Makerere University, Moses Tenywa tells IPS that African governments should do more to promote soil and water conservation, which is costly for farmers in terms of resources, labour, finances and inputs.

“Smallholder farmers usually lack the resources to effectively do soil and water conservation yet it is very important. Therefore, for small holder farmers to do it they must be motivated or incentivized and this can come through linkages to markets that bring in income or credit that enables them access inputs,” Tenywa says.

“Practicing climate smart agriculture in climate watersheds promotes soil health. This includes conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, diversification, mulching, and use of fertilizers in combination with rainwater harvesting.”

Before farmers received training on soil management methods, they applied fertilisers, for instance, without having their soils tested. Tenywa said now many smallholder farmers have been trained to diagnose their soils using a soil test kit and also to take their soils to laboratories for testing.

According to the Montpellier Panel report, an estimated 180 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are affected by land degradation, which costs about 68 billion dollars in economic losses as a result of damaged soils that prevent crop yields.

“The burdens caused by Africa’s damaged soils are disproportionately carried by the continent’s resource-poor farmers,” says the chair of the Montpellier Panel, Professor Sir Gordon Conway.

“Problems such as fragile land security and limited access to financial resources prompt these farmers to forgo better land management practices that would lead to long-term gains for soil health on the continent, in favour of more affordable or less labour-intensive uses of resources which inevitably exacerbate the issue.”

Soil health is critical to enhancing the productivity of Africa’s agriculture, a major source of employment and a huge contributor to GDP, says development expert and acting divisional manager in charge of Visioning & Knowledge management at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Wole Fatunbi.

“The use of simple and appropriate tools that suits the smallholders system and pocket should be explored while there is need for policy interventions including strict regulation on land use for agricultural purposes to reduce the spate of land degradation,” Fatunbi told IPS

He explained that 15 years ago he developed a set of technologies using vegetative material as green manure to substitute for fertiliser use in the Savannah of West Africa. The technology did not last because of the laborious process of collecting the material and burying it to make compost.

“If technologies do not immediately lead to more income or more food, farmers do not want them because no one will eat good soil,” said Fatunbi. “Soil fertility measures need to be wrapped in a user friendly packet. Compost can be packed as pellets with fortified mineral fertilisers for easy application.”

Fatunbi cites the land terrace system to manage soil erosion in the highlands of Uganda and Rwanda as a success story that made an impact because the systems were backed legislation. Also, the use of organic manure in the Savannah region through an agriculture system integrating livestock and crops has become a model for farmers to protect and promote soil health.

Meanwhile, a new report by US researchers cites global warming as another impact on soil with devastating consequences.

According to the report “Climate Change and Security in Africa”, the continent is expected to see a rise in average temperature that will be higher than the global average. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease throughout most of the region, with a possible exception of eastern Africa.

“Less rain will have serious implications for sub-Saharan agriculture, 75 percent of which is rain-fed. Average predicated production losses by 2050 for African crops are: maize 22 percent, sorghum 17 percent, millet 17 percent, groundnut 18 percent, and cassava 8 percent. Hence, in the absence of major interventions in capacity enhancements and adaption measures, warming by as little as 1.5C threatens food production in Africa significantly.”

A truly disturbing picture of the problems of soil was painted by the National Geographic magazine in a recent edition.

“By 1991, an area bigger than the United States and Canada combined was lost to soil erosion-and it shows no signs of stopping,” wrote agroecologist Jerry Glover in the article “Our Good Earth.” In fact, says Glover, “native forests and vegetation are being cleared and converted to agricultural land at a rate greater than any other period in history.

“We still continue to harvest more nutrients than we replace in soil,” he says. If a country is extracting oil, people worry about what will happen if the oil runs out. But they don’t seem to worry about what will happen if we run out of soil.

Adds Rattan Lal, soil scientist: “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.”

Related IPS Articles
The Soil, Silent Ally Against Hunger in Latin America
Peak Water, Peak OilÅ Now, Peak Soil?
Q&A: ‘Soil is Key to Global Warming, Food Security’

Edited by Lisa Vives

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Excerpt: A Montpellier Panel Report, December 2014


Soils’ varying properties, diverse qualities and characteristics directly influence the quality and amount of food that farmers grow. In effect, healthy and fertile soils are fundamental in the effort to reduce food insecurity, create viable rural livelihoods and sustainably manage ecosystems.

The contribution of soil to alleviating many of today’s pressing challenges, however, is overlooked. Undervalued, soils have become politically and physically neglected, triggering land degradation.

Affecting nearly one-third of the earth’s land area, land degradation reduces the productive capacity of agricultural land by eroding topsoil and depleting nutrients resulting in enormous environmental, social and economic costs. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) an estimated 180 million people are affected, while the economic loss due to land degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year.

Most critically, land degradation reduces soil fertility leading to lower yields, and increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Africa, the impacts are substantial: 65% of arable land, 30% of grazing land and 20% of forests are already damaged.

The burden is disproportionately carried by smallholder farmers because natural soil characteristics, tenuous land security and limited access to markets and financial resources prompt farmers to make short-term trade-offs that reduce long-term gains.

In many cases the limited use of fertiliser and poor land management practices are to blame. Rectifying these is required in order to achieve sustainable yields over time.

Yet, African farmers need to strike the right balance between adequate and affordable nutrient management and minimising environmental impacts. Central to reversing

land degradation and enhancing depleted soils, farmers require incentives for investing in land; these remain unattractive at present.

With more secure land rights, improved education and training, farmers could realise the productive, environmental and social rewards that come from long-term investment and stewardship in land.

Because Africa’s soils are as diverse and varied as farmers’ individual knowledge, resources and endowments, these must be recognised, enhanced and treated accordingly. Integrated Soil Management (ISM) offers the ability to sustainably intensify production and maximise social, economic and environmental benefits.

Globally, soils are under duress and their conservation, restoration and enhancement should be elevated as top priorities on global and national agendas. Increased funding for sustainable land management must be mobilised with greater transparency not only to maximise effectiveness, but to ensure that smallholder farmers receive the full benefits.

Climate-smart soil management will ultimately help agricultural systems better adapt and build resilience to climate change while minimising GHG emissions and restoring lost carbon to the soil.

We, the members of the Montpellier Panel therefore believe that soil is the cornerstone of food security and agricultural development and its care, restoration, enhancement and conservation should intuitively become a major global priority. Neglected soils lose fertility that increasingly lowers yields over time.

Smallholder farmers, especially those that farm inherently poor soils and lack the resources to invest in their lands, disproportionately carry the greatest burden. Renewed attention and investments in soils and sustainable land management, however, can reverse the process of degradation.

Embracing integrated soil management that builds on local and natural resources, with the appropriate use of targeted inputs and management practices, will provide the care and attention that Africa’s soils need for long term sustainable and productive use.

1. Strengthen political support for sustainable land management.
Along with food, water and energy security, sustainable land management should be a focus area within the post-2015 global development agenda that commits and builds on the Rio+20 target of “Zero Net Land Degradation.”

2. Increase financial support for investment in land and soil management.
Donors and governments must commit resources dedicated to sustainable land and soil management practices. Resources for more research must be mobilised, while institutions and knowledge to address land degradation must be strengthened.

3. Improve transparency for land and soil management.
Existing contributions to land and soil management are not easily discerned. Donors and governments should clearly identify their contributions to these priorities in national investment plans and food security strategies, coupled with ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of their investments.

4. Attribute a value to land degradation.
Quantifying the costs of land degradation and the benefits generated by sustainable land management practices will reinforce attention to treat land degradation as a serious global challenge.

5. Start a ‘Big Data’ Revolution on soils.
There are huge gaps in data availability, especially in Africa. Regularly updated data on soil types, locations, qualities and degradation must be significantly enhanced through the use of advanced remote-sensing systems, dense networks of local weather information and “citizen science.” This information must be made available in a timely manner to allow for the targeted and selective use of inputs.

6. Create incentives, especially secure land rights.
Insecure land rights are a fundamental disincentive to invest in the care and management of farming land. Farmers also need better access to markets, extension services and training to improve soil health and be provided with incentives, such as carbon credits, to adapt to and to mitigate climate change.

7. Build on existing knowledge and resources.
There is a vast amount of local knowledge and information on soil science and land degradation in Africa. It is essential that new research is built on this existing knowledge and that new findings are shared amongst actors.

8. Build soil science capacity in Africa.
There is a lack of soil science capacity in Africa. This capacity needs to be enhanced by strengthening soil research centres in Africa and collaboration with European and other international scientists and research centres.

9. Embrace integrated soil management.
A combination of remedies is needed to restore, conserve and enhance soils. ISM must become the cornerstone of sustainable land management in the 21st century, integrating organic farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approaches and selective and targeted use of inputs.

10. Foster climate smart soil research and application.
Farmers should be provided with the knowledge and resources on how ISM can help them better adapt to the adverse effects of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supported by publicly funded incentives.

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