Solutions to Climate Change’s Impact on Soil Health

Micael Beun and Wilson Leonardo, IFDC project leads in Burundi and Mozambique, outline on-the-ground solutions for helping African smallholders adapt to climate change and improve soil health.

As climate change threatens agriculture and food systems around the world, its effects reach down to the ground beneath our feet. Soil health across Central and Southern Africa could suffer greatly from the increasing number of extreme climatic events – as sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In two countries in which IFDC works, Mozambique and Burundi, the effects of climate change on soil health can be seen as severe weather events have impacted farmers and their ability to produce crops. On-the-ground activities have enabled IFDC staff to not only observe the effects but formulate solutions to safeguard farmers and mitigate losses.

Creating climate resilience in Mozambique

In Mozambique, the Idai (2019) and Eloise (2021) cyclones resulted in severe flooding, particularly in the Buzi Basin – a cropland-abundant and relatively flat region of the country. The immediate effects of widespread crop loss were exacerbated by salinization of soils due to floodwater.

In its Embassy of Sweden-funded Transfer Efficient Agricultural Technologies through Market Systems (TEAMS) project, IFDC and partners take a two-pronged approach to increasing soil health: Assisting farmers with agricultural intensification combined with extensification to help them rebuild their soils and increase production. Intensifying production through crop rotation, intercropping, and judiciously applying site-specific fertilisers, and extensifying by decreasing input levels on larger areas of land, together mitigate soil nutrient depletion while allowing soils to recover and store organic matter.

Castigo and Helena stand in their rice field after Cyclone Idai. Photo credit: IFDC

Castigo and Helena, two smallholder beneficiaries of the program, applied the recommended climate-smart practices after the Idai floods. Because of this, they could harvest some of their rice for household use, and also save seeds from their plants for the following planting season. Though the loss was still great to these farmers, they demonstrate that climate resilience at a smallholder level is possible.

Building better farming systems in Burundi

In Burundi, heavy rainfall has led to the erosion of fertile soils and leaching of plant nutrients. A common trend seen in Burundi, as well as Mozambique, is the acidification of soils and the depletion of organic matter. In contrast to the approaches taken in the predominantly flat farmland in the Buzi Basin in Mozambique, farmland in Burundi is typified by high population pressure and steeply sloped topography. As such, the approach to improving soil health also differs.

Calinie and Théophile improved their livelihood by improving their soil. Photo credit: IFDC

Like many Burundian farmers, Calinie and Théophile had been farming without improved seed, fertilisers, or farming practices, and limited access to markets. Their farm was not very productive, agriculturally or financially, with their small, steep plots suffering from erosion season after season. But things started to turn around with their family improvement plan involving natural resource management, division of labor, and family nutrition.

Through the Dutch-funded Soil Fertility Stewardship Project (PAGRIS), IFDC and partners help producer families at farm level and communities at watershed level to develop three-year holistic plans to reduce soil erosion and restore soil fertility. Anti-erosion measures such as reforestation, mulching, and contour plowing reduce landscape vulnerability to erosion. To boost productivity and minimize soil nutrient depletion, intercropping and climate-smart cropping techniques are employed. By increasing biomass production at the farm-level, producers can maintain and restore organic matter in soils. IFDC furthermore supports Burundian farmers to access and apply mineral fertilisers and soil amendments through a comprehensive national fertiliser subsidy scheme.

Now, Calinie and Théophile see their farm’s productivity progressively increase, and they take justifiable pride in the results. As part of their plan, they commit to manage their family resources and income in a way that betters the family’s livelihood. The new income is invested in nutritious food, improved housing, schooling for children, and improved inputs.

Integrated Soil Fertility Management

IFDC’s recommended immediate responses to acute and chronic climate crises are embedded into Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM). ISFM is a set of practices, adapted to local conditions, to improve soil quality, and nutrient and water use efficiency, resulting in improved crop productivity. The approach focuses on holistic soil health and includes smart and sustainable application of mineral fertilisers in combination with amendments such as dolomite and organic fertilisers when possible.

The long-term response recommendation is to rebuild local household biomass production such that farmers can reinvigorate the organic matter to increase soil resilience by increasing its capacity to retain nutrients. Climate crises negatively affect farm household biomass production from livestock as birds and animals are lost or displaced. In the long-term, IFDC will support farmers to build biomass production and access amendments to ensure that farmers apply all critical elements to their soils.

While food system complexity varies from region to region, and involves many actors, sustainable food systems are founded on healthy soils. Strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of those who care for our soils must become a hallmark of all food systems programs ­– for the good of our farming families and the survival of us all.