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Food and Agriculture

More Than Half of Africa’s Arable Land ‘Too Damaged’ for Food Production

Healthy soils are critical for global food production and provide a range of environmental services. Photo: FAO/Olivier Asselin

NTUNGAMO DISTRICT, Uganda, Jan 13 2015 (IPS) - A report published last month by the Montpellier Panel – an eminent group of agriculture, ecology and trade experts from Africa and Europe – says about 65 percent of Africa’s arable land is too damaged to sustain viable food production.

The report, “No Ordinary Matter: conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soil“, notes that Africa suffers from the triple threat of land degradation, poor yields and a growing population.

"Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil." -- Rattan Lal

The Montpellier Panel has recommended, among others, that African governments and donors invest in land and soil management, and create incentives particularly on secure land rights to encourage the care and adequate management of farm land. In addition, the report recommends increasing financial support for investment on sustainable land management.

The publication of the report comes with the U.N. declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils, a declaration the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) director general, Jose Graziano da Silva, said was important for “paving the road towards a real sustainable development for all and by all.”

According to the FAO, human pressure on the resource has left a third of all soils on which food production depends degraded worldwide.

Without new approaches to better managing soil health, the amount of arable and productive land available per person in 2050 will be a fourth of the level it was in 1960 as the FAO says it can take up to 1,000 years to form a centimetre of soil.

Soil expert and professor of agriculture at the Makerere University, Moses Tenywa tells IPS that African governments should do more to promote soil and water conservation, which is costly for farmers in terms of resources, labour, finances and inputs.

“Smallholder farmers usually lack the resources to effectively do soil and water conservation yet it is very important. Therefore, for small holder farmers to do it they must be motivated or incentivized and this can come through linkages to markets that bring in income or credit that enables them access inputs,” Tenywa says.

“Practicing climate smart agriculture in climate watersheds promotes soil health. This includes conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, diversification, mulching, and use of fertilizers in combination with rainwater harvesting.”

Before farmers received training on soil management methods, they applied fertilisers, for instance, without having their soils tested. Tenywa said now many smallholder farmers have been trained to diagnose their soils using a soil test kit and also to take their soils to laboratories for testing.

According to the Montpellier Panel report, an estimated 180 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are affected by land degradation, which costs about 68 billion dollars in economic losses as a result of damaged soils that prevent crop yields.

“The burdens caused by Africa’s damaged soils are disproportionately carried by the continent’s resource-poor farmers,” says the chair of the Montpellier Panel, Professor Sir Gordon Conway.

“Problems such as fragile land security and limited access to financial resources prompt these farmers to forgo better land management practices that would lead to long-term gains for soil health on the continent, in favour of more affordable or less labour-intensive uses of resources which inevitably exacerbate the issue.”

Soil health is critical to enhancing the productivity of Africa’s agriculture, a major source of employment and a huge contributor to GDP, says development expert and acting divisional manager in charge of Visioning & Knowledge management at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Wole Fatunbi.

“The use of simple and appropriate tools that suits the smallholders system and pocket should be explored while there is need for policy interventions including strict regulation on land use for agricultural purposes to reduce the spate of land degradation,” Fatunbi told IPS

He explained that 15 years ago he developed a set of technologies using vegetative material as green manure to substitute for fertiliser use in the Savannah of West Africa. The technology did not last because of the laborious process of collecting the material and burying it to make compost.

“If technologies do not immediately lead to more income or more food, farmers do not want them because no one will eat good soil,” said Fatunbi. “Soil fertility measures need to be wrapped in a user friendly packet. Compost can be packed as pellets with fortified mineral fertilisers for easy application.”

Fatunbi cites the land terrace system to manage soil erosion in the highlands of Uganda and Rwanda as a success story that made an impact because the systems were backed legislation. Also, the use of organic manure in the Savannah region through an agriculture system integrating livestock and crops has become a model for farmers to protect and promote soil health.

Meanwhile, a new report by U.S. researchers cites global warming as another impact on soil with devastating consequences.

According to the report “Climate Change and Security in Africa”, the continent is expected to see a rise in average temperature that will be higher than the global average. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease throughout most of the region, with a possible exception of eastern Africa.

“Less rain will have serious implications for sub-Saharan agriculture, 75 percent of which is rain-fed… Average predicated production losses by 2050 for African crops are: maize 22 percent, sorghum 17 percent, millet 17 percent, groundnut 18 percent, and cassava 8 percent.

“Hence, in the absence of major interventions in capacity enhancements and adaption measures, warming by as little as 1.5C threatens food production in Africa significantly.”

A truly disturbing picture of the problems of soil was painted by the National Geographic magazine in a recent edition.

“By 1991, an area bigger than the United States and Canada combined was lost to soil erosion—and it shows no signs of stopping,” wrote agroecologist Jerry Glover in the article “Our Good Earth.” In fact, says Glover, “native forests and vegetation are being cleared and converted to agricultural land at a rate greater than any other period in history.

“We still continue to harvest more nutrients than we replace in soil,” he says. If a country is extracting oil, people worry about what will happen if the oil runs out. But they don’t seem to worry about what will happen if we run out of soil.

Adds Rattan Lal, soil scientist: “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.”

Edited by Lisa Vives

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  • wordscanhelp

    Good article. Much better perspective than the plan for ‘commodification’ of African agriculture being touted by outsiders, with the GMO companies on the bandwagon, and with the collusion of African governments and elites. This plan of giving small farmers soil kits and access to lab, combined with help of developing good seed, is far better than the AGRA plan of selling ‘improved’ seeds to farmers.

    Once they become dependent, and lose the knowledge of how to save and improve their own seeds, they are a captive market for predatory GMO companies. Local experimentation focussed on that soil and that region, takes a hit. The dumbing down of Africa.

    The big monocrop farmers that want to get their hands on African land, use machines not hand labourers, use chemicals to further destroy the soil’s natural abilities to regenerate, and rely upon African elites to use a nation’s own army and police on it’s own people to clear them off the land for the foreign company. If that company goes bankrupt, which has happened, those people never get to go back to their land – instead the local elites take it.

  • Kevin Schmidt

    There are no local elites in Africa. Well, at least not African in origin.

  • canadianwest

    I certainly have no formal education in land management or farming, but after much of a lifetime growing small batches of food on some pretty miserable soil I have to question the headline “Too damaged”….
    With proper conditioning, as the article speaks to most land can be rehabilitated IMHO to the point that if looked after can be productive for as long as it is cared for.
    Certainly there are areas of the world where chemicals and other poisons have made a permanent mess of the soil, but from what I pulled from this article a better description would be “exhausted” land.
    I also acknowledge my efforts to garden are boosted by the easy availability of safe fertilizers, mulch, water and many other tools whereas an African farmer may well be limited to whatever labour and ingenuity he/she can plough into the land.
    I understand China is investing in Africa for its agricultural potential and I doubt that is being done on a wing and a prayer. Seems like it could well become the breadbasket much of the world will rely on if we ever manage to grab some form of control over a climate we’ve been training to act like a problem child.

  • jim james

    That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read.

  • Dwain Holmes

    When Kenya gained it´s independance and the European settlers had to sell out for pennies on the dollar they had developed irrigated farms as modern as any in the USA!!It was turned over to the natives and in 5 years it was back to bush!! Africa has been settled by Man thousands of years before North America ,Europe,Etc and yet they are still living in the dark ages!!They breed like rabbits and most would rather chase lions with a spear than to really better themselves!!

  • naban

    Ways & means to be invented to Utilise water flowing to the sea without being used.

  • Uvo

    You have an ignorant view of Africa. Try and learn more about the continent and its people from varied sources and not just the western news media and its allies.

    As for the Kenyan example you used, could the ‘natives’ inability to run the farms sustainably be due to the fact that they lacked access to the sort of financial and technical inputs that the European settlers had? Presently, in my country small farmers face a lot of problems accessing these inputs and so even when they have the right training and skills, they are unable to improve on the methods they use in the field.

  • Uvo

    No local elites of African origin??!! …. lol

    Please, educate yourself a bit more about Africa before making comments on articles related to the continent.

  • braydonisawesome500

    well said

  • Curious Cat

    Is there any impacts on political perspective?

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