Africa seeks solutions to degraded soil

Posted: 5 April 2006

Population pressure is forcing African farmers to grow crop after crop, depleting the soil of nutrients and lowering yields from the land, according to a study by the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development (IFDC). Africa's population is projected to more than double from 885 million to 1.8 billion by 2050. The study was presented at the African Fertilizer Summit last week. The following report was provided by the Environment News Service.

Severe degradation of Africa's farmland is widespread and threatens to further impoverish the continent, according to a study released Thursday at a planning meeting for the Africa Fertilizer Summit that attracted three present or former African heads of state.

Women pounding millet, Dogon Plateau, Eastern Mali. Photo: © Paul Harrison
Women pounding millet, Dogon Plateau, Eastern Mali. Photo: © Paul Harrison
Women pounding millet, Dogon Plateau, Eastern Mali© Paul Harrison
Some 75 per cent of farmland on the African continent is severely degraded and rapidly losing the basic soil nutrients needed to grow crops, the report says.

The continent's sub-Saharan region faces a "soil health crisis," according to the study, and soil degradation is a major cause of Africa's pervasive poverty and hunger. One of every three people in the region is undernourished.

The report, authored by the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development (IFDC), finds population pressure is forcing farmers to grow crop after crop, depleting the soil of nutrients and lowering yields from the land.

Mined soil

"When farmers plant the same fields season after season and cannot afford to replace the soil nutrients taken up by their crops, the soil is literally mined of life," said Dr. Amit Roy, head of the IFDC, a public nonprofit international organization.

An example of soil erosion, Ethiopia© Alberto Conti/IFAD
An example of soil erosion, Ethiopia© Alberto Conti/IFAD
An example of soil erosion, Ethiopia© Alberto Conti/IFAD
More than 60 per cent of Africa's population is directly engaged in agriculture, but crop productivity has not increased at rates seen in other parts of the world, reports the IFDC, a research and development organization based in Muscle Shoals, Alabama that does not produce, sell, or distribute any fertilizer.

Grain yield in Africa has stagnated at one ton per hectare, compared to world average of about three tons. The report finds the vast majority of African farmers are too poor to buy fertilizer - costs for fertilizer in the region are two-to-six times the world average.

Fertilizer use in Africa is less than 10 per cent of the world average and is the lowest in the world.

"The tiny country of Bangladesh uses as much fertilizer as the entire area of sub-Saharan Africa," Roy told reporters at a press briefing in New York City.

The ultimate objective of the African Fertilizer Summit is to improve the lives of the poor and hungry in sub-Saharan Africa by boosting agricultural production, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told reporters.

Local fertilizer

"We need to revitalize African agriculture," Obasanjo said. "This is the most direct way to improve their wellbeing ... 200 million hungry people are waiting."

Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso. Credit: FAO/D. Debert
Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso. Credit: FAO/D. Debert
Fertilizing maize, Burkina Faso.© FAO/D. Debert
Obasanjo is chairman of the Implementing Committee of the African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and will chair the Africa Fertilizer Summit June 9 to 13 in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The summit will focus on improving markets, training a rural network of retailers, and expanding financing for private sector importers and investment in local fertilizer manufacturing.

Also in New York at the planning session Thursday were Alpha Oumar Konaré, chairperson of the African Union Commission and President of Mali from 1992 to 2002, and former President of Mozimbique Joaquin Chissano who governed from 1986 to 2004, and is now a special envoy of the UN secretary-general.

Roy says they are both "dedicated, totally committed," to the success of the Fertilizer Summit.

"At the summit," said Roy, "we want to have major turnaround in African agriculture, like the Green revolution in India, which happened because there were a group of people who championed it."

The IFDC study offers sobering news for a population expected to reach 1.8 billion people by 2050.

Soil erosion

Tracking the soil health in sub-Saharan Africa from 1980 to 2004, the report details substantial soil decline in every major region. The highest rates of depletion were found in Guinea, Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, where nutrient losses are more than 60 kilograms per hectare per year.

During the 2002-2004 cropping season, about 85 per cent of African farmland had nutrient mining rates of more than 30 kilograms per hectare of nutrients yearly, according to the report, and 40 percent had rates greater than 60 kilograms per hectare yearly.

African farmland is also suffering nutrient depletion from soil erosion as well as leaching of nitrogen and potassium, the report said.

The authors estimate Africa is losing $4 billion worth of soil nutrients every year.

The soil crisis is also increasing conservation challenges as farmers abandon infertile fields to clear forests for cultivation. Some 70 percent of deforestation in Africa is a result of clearing land for cultivation, the report said. The study found some 50,000 hectares of forest and 60,000 hectares of Africa's grasslands are lost to agriculture yearly, due to low levels of soil fertility and increasing population pressures.

The report's authors insist that policy and investment strategies can reverse the decline in soil fertility and aid Africa's poor and hungry.

"Techniques that combine the use of manufactured and organic fertilizers, and that focus on precisely applying minimal amounts of fertilizer, can do double duty - raising farm incomes and rebuilding the soil," Roy said.

Development agencies and African leaders said the report's recommendations will help drive the Fertilizer Summit, which will focus on strategies to revitalize African agriculture and increase productivity.

"In Africa, farmers can buy a soda in nearly every village but can't find basic tools to improve productivity," said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, a sponsor of the summit. "But the problem is not insurmountable - solutions do exist."

The Fertilizer Summit also has the support of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is one of a group of 24 eminent persons assembled by the IFDC to give weight to the summit process.

In a letter from Carter read at the meeting, he gave full endorsement to the summit. Being a peanut farmer, Carter said he recognizes the importance of this summit.

Cadmium danger

Dr. Roy, a chemical engineer originally from India, heads the IFDC, a public nonprofit organization that receives its funding from the US government through the US Agency for International Development, as well as from the Dutch, French, and Swiss governments, the UN Development Programme, and the World Bank. The Muscle Shoals headquarters is located on U.S. government land owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, although the IFDC is not otherwise connected with the TVA, Roy says.

The IFDC also receives some funding from the private sector, particularly from associations which represent the interest of the agricultural industry as a whole. "Their money contributes to the public good, and the research we do doesn't benefit any one company," he says.

As a chemical engineer, Roy is concerned about the heavy metal content in fertilizers, especially phosphate rock that is high in cadmium. The IFDC has a research programme at its Muscle Shoals headquarters that focuses on reducing the concentrations of heavy metals in fertilizers.

"Phosphate rock high in cadmium content causes environmental and human health problems," he told ENS. "We have worked to develop technology to remove cadmium from fertilizer before it is put out to the market."

On agricultural issues such as genetically modified seeds and fly ash content in fertilizers, Roy says the IFDC advises the governments in countries where it works of the scientific facts - both pro and con - and the governments make the final decisions.

Source: ENS, New York, March 31,2006

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