Soil: Not Sexy, But Definitive




I admit it: soil is not sexy. Yet, since the United Nations (UN) has declared 2015 the international year of soils, its health and contribution to food security and development goals will finally get some well deserved attention.

Healthy soils are the cornerstone of a healthy food system, and in no region of the world is the impact of depleted and undernourished soils being felt more acutely than in sub-Saharan Africa, where as much as 65pc of arable land is degraded. The fact that 180 million people are relying on depleted soil to grow their food is a key reason why sub-Saharan Africa lags behind other developing regions in meeting its food security goals. The economic loss associated with land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at 68 billion dollars per year.

Despite soil’s vital importance for food security and development in Africa, the subject has been largely neglected by governments and donors. A new report from a global high level panel, called Montpeillers Panel, seeks to reverse this trend, offering recommendations for how to realise the productive, environmental and social rewards that come from long term investment in land.

Land degradation not only reduces soil fertility and lowers crop yields, but can lead to higher carbon emissions that contribute to climate change due to improper farming practices. The development agenda is now attempting to be climate-smart at every turn, and land management is inseparable from this. In fact, soil can be a major carbon sink since practices such as conservation farming and agroforestry can capture a lot of excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Since sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers are on the frontline of a hotter, hungrier world, the potential of proper soil management should not be overlooked. Traditionally, African farmers were able to rely on more abundant land on which to farm and on more consistent weather to dictate planting and harvesting times. However, with a growing population, more competition for land, and more variable and extreme weather, African farmers need to be equipped to deal with these realities.

Currently, the burdens caused by degraded lands are carried disproportionately by smallholder farmers, who also hold the key to improving Africa’s soils. But the uptake of appropriate land management practices remains low, as tenuous land security and limited access to markets and financial resources prompt farmers to make short term trade-offs that reduce long term gains.

One key recommendation from this report is to incentivise farmers to improve soil health, which could take the form of payment for ecosystem services, or strengthening farmers’ rights over the lands that they cultivate, encouraging them to make decisions that will have a positive impact over the long term.

The sustainable development goals now under discussion must include an important opportunity to set measurable targets for soil health, which must be backed up by robust data collection. The target of zero net land degradation, which was floated at Rio+20 in June 2012, is a good basis to work from.

As with every development issue, the solutions for soil health are going to be highly localised. This is why we urgently need to equip a new generation of African soil scientists. Governments and donors must dedicate funds to strengthening soil research centres in Africa by collaborating with European and other international scientists and research institutions.

The wide adoption of integrated soil management techniques that combine traditional approaches, such as water harvesting and intercropping, with a prudent use of necessary inputs is also key. On Africa’s depleted soils, production cannot be increased and maintained without bringing nutrients in from outside, either through livestock manure, organic matter or mineral fertiliser. The key is to find the combination that works best for each particular region and that equips farmers with the knowledge and tools they require to execute these best practices.

Africa’s future cannot be built on exhausted soils. The conservation, restoration and enhancement of the earth must become a major global priority or a food-secure Africa will remain out of reach.



By Gordon Conway
Gordon Conway is an agricultural ecologist and former president of the Royal Geographical Society, United Kingdom.

Published on December 07, 2014 [ Vol 15 ,No 762]


SHARE :
               


Editorial

With a reformist administration in charge of the executive, there has b...


Agenda

The new electricity tariffs that became effective on December 1, 2018,...


Fineline

Who it is that midwifed the rapprochement between E...


Commentary

Ethiopia’s economy is at a crossroads. The same old advice will not s...


Viewpoint

A recent photo between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and George Soros...


Opinion

The future is bleak. Millennials and younger generations who will inher...


View From Arada

There is heated debate on the propriety, decency and morality of breast...




Business Indicators




ADVERTISEMENT



Editors Pick















//