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Opinion: Environment, Food Security & Nutrition

Why Increasing Smallholder Resilience Starts with Soils

Julian Galindo Julian Galindo
Jean-Pierre Rennaud Jean-Pierre Rennaud
Nishal Ramdoo Nishal Ramdoo

By Julian Galindo, Senior Project Manager; Jean-Pierre Rennaud, General Delegate & Cofounder and Nishal Ramdoo, Director of Communications at Livelihoods Fund. 

When we talk about natural disasters, we immediately think of cyclones, floods and droughts. Without a doubt, climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of these hazards. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Farmers are already suffering from the insidious effects of climate change on a daily basis: longer dry seasons, degraded soils, and a loss of biodiversity. In addition to these natural disasters, farmers also contend with disasters directly triggered by human activities like deforestation, loss of soil fertility and soil erosion. Soil degradation is a silent disaster jeopardizing our future, but the good news is that efficient solutions do exist.

More than 25 percent of the Earth’s surface has become degraded. Mainly due to unsustainable farming, Scientists have calculated that we may only have 60 years of harvests left, and it can take up to 2,000 years for nature to create just 10 centimeters of fertile soil.  Soil degradation is already undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people and the situation will worsen with the effects of a growing world population and climate change, which will drive conflicts and migration. In addition to providing 95% of the global food supply either directly or indirectly, soils are key for access to fresh water and are one of the biggest carbon stores.

Smallholder farmers living in poor countries are at the front line of this turmoil. Giving them access to farming practices that contribute to the preservation of soils is therefore one of the major challenges to increasing agricultural resilience.

Access to Knowledge on Boosting Soil Health

The slopes of Mount-Elgon in Western Kenya are home to 2 million people. This ever-growing population exerts pressure on agricultural land and natural resources. Degraded lands, due to deforestation, unsustainable farming, soil erosion and uncontrolled grazing, are helping to sustain a vicious cycle for farmers, with low yields and low revenues.

The Livelihoods Fund is an impact investment fund created by private companies, together with sustainable agriculture NGO Vi Agroforestry, and Brookside, a Kenyan dairy company. The fund is supporting initiatives for 30,000 farmers to transform their farming practices. The project focuses on land restoration to increase food security and preserve water resources.

The farmers are being trained on Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Practices (SALM) that contribute to preservation of the soil, improving its fertility and its capacity to retain water. The aim of all these practices is to increase the quantity of organic matter in the soil as the latter retains essential nutrients for plants, ensures the balance of its ecosystem (worms, bacteria) and acts like a sponge which reduces runoff. The SALM practices being implemented therefore have cascading effects which will contribute to the long-term preservation of soils. For instance, low-cost and simple techniques such as compost application, retention ditches, zero tillage, and cover crops are combined to reduce soil erosion and regenerate its fertility and organic matter content in the long-term. This has a proven direct effect on soil water retention capacity.

The Link to Food Security, Water Access, and Climate Change Mitigation

Through the planting of millions of trees that bring new biomass to the ecosystem, the project puts a strong focus on agroforestry. This approach enables additional fertility transfer (from trees to soil) and contributes to the regeneration of local biodiversity. As a result, a healthier soil (with a 1 ton increase in its organic content per ha per year) sequesters an additional 2,5 tons of C02 per hectare annually.

The project’s impacts are being monitored through an innovative method, designed with the support of an environmental consultant, Unique Forestry and Land Use. The soil’s carbon content, in the form of organic matter, is used as a tracer to measure the soil’s fertility and its capacity to retain water. The study shows that these SALM practices increase the quantity of organic matter in the soil content by around 1 ton per ha each year, leading to 17,000 liters of groundwater available per hectare. The SALM practices enhance the resilienceof these farms against negative climate change effects, such as erratic rains and extended dry periods.

Moreover, the SALM practices have proven their efficiency in improving agricultural productivity and food security in the longer term, with up to 30% yields reporting an increase after 5 years. Healthy soils offer the possibility for ecological intensification and crop diversification, and more crops can be produced on the same plot while preserving natural resources. In Mount Elgon, smallholders can now produce food and cash crops, as well as fodder, boosting food security and farmer revenue. With better access to feed, water and cow care services, milk production is expected to increase by nearly thirty-fold in five years.

This project has driven transformation on a large-scale, with the participation of 30,000 family farms and across 35,000 ha. It used a community engagement approach, which relies on already-existing social structures and organizations. Working with hundreds of local grassroot groups of between 20-30 men and women created efficiency for message broadcasting, training and follow-ups, and meant the practices implemented by each farmer within the Livelihoods-Mount-Elgon project could be closely monitored. Farmers share their results and concerns within their local groups to foster continuous improvement, and practices are constantly adjusted to ensure they are delivering expected results on productivity, water conservation and CO2 sequestration.

To guarantee that the project will deliver lasting impact, it will be monitored over a 10-year period to give farmers all the necessary time and tools to fully empower themselves. In addition, since Brookside has committed to buying all their milk during 10 years, they have long-term economic prospects. In this way, the project brings together all the necessary conditions to enable farmers to take care of their soils, while earning more and improving the lives of their families.

Meeting the challenges of land restoration also requires innovative partnerships and financing to reach scale and impact. In the Livelihoods- Mount-Elgon project, the Livelihoods Fund, provides upfront financing to Vi Agroforestry for project implementation and monitoring. Brookside pays a fee to the Livelihoods Fund according to increases in milk production. The Livelihoods Fund will also receive carbon credits according to the CO2 emissions sequestered in soils. This mechanism creates a continuous cycle with family farmers at the center.

Learnings from the Livelihoods – Mount Elgon project

The Livelihoods- Mount Elgon project sheds light on simple solutions that can efficiently restore soils and fight climate change by linking farming practices with soil fertility, water and carbon. The rationale underpinning the project, bringing together the necessary conditions to enable the soil to regenerate itself, can be replicated everywhere. Nevertheless, practices must be adapted according to the crops, the landscape, weather conditions.  To determine which practices will yield the best results, it is instrumental to give farmers more access to knowledge so they can understand the soil’s structure and use the appropriate practices for its long-term regeneration.

The project also shows that simple practices can lead to an ecological intensification of food and cash crop production. Soil restoration is key to addressing the needs of a growing population amid increased competition for land use. Ecological intensification brings solutions for food security while contributing to the preservation of our natural resources, and the sequestration of CO2.

Last but by no means least, the Livelihoods- Mount Elgon project demonstrates the need for a robust monitoring process of the SALM practices to evaluate their impact. Soil restoration requires time. Although the first effects can be quickly visible, it is essential to make sure that we are not taking more from the soil than we are putting into it. The SALM practices should not be seen as inputs but as the necessary conditions to provide the soil with organic matter, minerals, living organisms and the water necessary for it to regenerate itself permanently. This is a fragile balance that requires long-term monitoring and continuous improvement.

The smallholder farmers in the Mount Elgon region in Kenya but also in the Araku Valley in India, in Sahelian regions of Burkina-Faso, in Casamance in Senegal and from all over the world are paving the way for a more resilient agriculture. And it all starts with soils.

Learn more about the Livelihoods- Mount Elgon project

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