Replenishing soil fertility, by using mineral and organic fertilisers, could triple crop yields in tropical Africa, according to Pedro A. Sánchez from the Earth Institute.
In Asia and Latin America food production tripled between the 1960s and 2000 thanks to the use of high-yielding crop varieties, but Sánchez says that a similar success is hampered in Africa due to “decades of farming without adequate fertilizer and manure [that has] stripped the soils of the vital nutrients needed to support plant growth”. In his article published in Nature, he writes, “Without soil replenishment, even the best crop varieties and the most enlightened policies cannot stave off hunger.”
The effectiveness of improving soil fertility is proven through the eighty Millennium Villages, set up in 2005 across ten African countries. Sánchez notes that as a result of fertilizer applications, along with improved cultivars and agronomic knowledge, in 78% of the Millennium Village households maize yields have exceeded the three-tons-per-hectare mark.
He offers the success story of Malawi, where a government-funded fertiliser subsidy scheme has increased maize production from 0.8 tonnes per hectare in 2007 to 2.2 in 2007. Malawi has gone from being food-aid-dependent to a “food aid donor to its neighbours”. Ten other African countries are now following Malawi’s example.
To build on these initial successes, Sánchez makes recommendations for eliminating hunger in tropical Africa:
- Adding organic fertilizers to African soils, as a supplement to mineral fertilizers, to provide essential carbon.
- Continued development of a digital soil map of Africa to allow tailored fertilization according to region and soil type.
- Agriculture and health to be tackled together, with education, water, sanitation, infrastructure, environment, gender inequalities and information technology closely linked.