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Opinion: Environment

Sir Gordon Conway: Supporting the Soil that Supports African People

Gordon Conway Gordon Conway

When building food security and economic growth in Africa, the ground beneath your feet plays a crucial role. Modern studies, using remote sensing, show that 65 per cent of arable land in Africa is degraded, meaning it has an impaired ability to nurture plant life, including crops. This results in low yields and higher crop failure, which in turn have a direct impact on the health and economic growth of the populations dependent on that land. Across the region an estimated 180 million people  are affected by the social and economic costs of degraded land.

That is why the Montpellier Panel, a team of experts seeking to guide European donors on how to effectively support agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa, has chosen soil health as the subject for its latest report ‘No Ordinary Matter: conserving, restoring & enhancing Africa’s soils’. The report describes how continual land degradation is directly impeding aid and development efforts in this area. However, the problem is often overlooked.

The consequences of land degradation in Africa have the most profound impact on the smallest and poorest farmers. As populations increase and cities sprawl onto farmland, the pressure to produce more food from increasingly small areas is rising. In addition, climate change in this area is predicted to both decrease average rainfall and increase the frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods. Degraded land is in the worst position to cope with the added pressure of these changes, it is therefore vital to improve the quality of soil, and do so quickly, if these farming communities are to able to support not only themselves but the growing population.

Causes of degradation
In terms of soil quality sub-Saharan Africa has been dealt a difficult hand: the ancient ground means most of nutrients from the parent rock have long since been washed away, and generations of farming have stripped out much of what was left. In 2008, the region (excluding South Africa) accounted for just 1 per cent of global fertiliser use. Fertiliser acts to replenish the nutrients that crop growth uses up. However, it is expensive and so rarely used on low-profit land, leading to soils becoming increasingly stripped of nutrients and unable to nourish crops sufficiently. The prudent and selective use of fertilisers, that are best suited to the particular needs of the soils in question is one important step towards reviving Africa’s soils.

The downward cycle of soil quality this region is seeing, is accelerated by poor land management practices. With poor access to markets and weak ownership rights, farmers are often disinclined to invest in the land, opting instead for quick fixes rather than long-term sustainable options. 

How can donors and governments halt land degradation in Africa?
The Montpellier Panel report outlines a range of recommendations on how soil health issues can be addressed by donors and governments in Africa:

  1. Strengthening political support for sustainable land management and committing to a target of “Zero Net Land Degradation”.
  2. Increasing financial support for investment in land and soil management practices and research that will address land degradation.
  3. Improving transparency for land and soil management clearly identifying contributions in national investment plans and food security strategies, coupled with ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of these investments.
  4. Quantifying the costs of land degradation and benefits generated by sustainable land management practices to reinforce the scale of the challenge.
  5. Bridging gaps in data available on African soils through the use of advanced remote-sensing systems, dense networks of local weather information and “citizens’ science”.
  6. Creating incentives, particularly secure land rights to encourage the care and adequate management of farm land
  7. Building on existing knowledge and resources on soil science and land degradation in Africa.
  8. Strengthening soil research centres in Africa and by collaborating with European and other international scientists and research centres.
  9. Promoting integrated soil management (ISM), that combines organic farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approaches and selective and targeted use of inputs.
  10. Providing knowledge, resources and incentives to help farmers adopt climate-smart techniques for soil management

Poor farmers are paying a heavy price for degraded land. There’s still a way to go in connecting farmers with the knowledge and technology to improve their soil and boost production, but the potential benefits are far greater than the costs. With the right interventions from donors and government, Africa’s arable land can be revived to support the generations to come.

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