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Poor Soils A Huge Limitation for Africa’s Food Security

April 19, 2015

EL BATAN, Mexico, April 19, 2015 – Sustainable Development Goals being addressed at the Global Soil Week cannot ignore dependence on maize as a staple food for millions in Africa, and the need to help smallholder farmers maximize yields in African soils.

Today, Berlin, Germany, hosts soil scientists from across the world who have converged for the Global Soil Week (GSW) to find solutions for sustainable land governance and soil management. Farmers and other stakeholders in agriculture are keen to see outcomes that will translate into healthier soils for sustainable development in Africa and elsewhere.

For Africa’s smallholder farmers, low-fertility soils with poor nitrogen-supplying capacity are only second to drought as a limiting factor. Consequently, farmers suffer low yields and crop failure, a situation that has crippled food security for more than half (60 percent) of the population in this region who depend on smallscale farm produce.

To improve productivity, farmers apply nitrogen fertilizers, which provide necessary nutrients the soil needs to feed plants. However, most farmers cannot afford to apply the required amount of fertilizers because the costs are too high for them. It is estimated that nitrogen fertilizer costs as much as six times more in Africa that in any other part of the world.  “For my one-acre farm, I use a 50-kilogram bag that costs KES 4,000 [USD 42]. This is a lot of money, so I have to use very little to save for the next planting season,” says Ms. Lucy Wawera, a farmer in Embu County, Kenya.

Maize is the most important cereal crop in sub-Saharan Africa consumed by more than 650 million people. This dependence therefore dictates that solutions to Africa’s fragile food security also focus on improving maize production. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and its partners are working through the Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) Project to address -nitrogen depleted soils. They are exploiting naturally occurring genetic variation in maize to develop new varieties that are nitrogen-use-efficient or better at utilizing the limited amounts of fertilizer that smallholders can afford in sub-Saharan Africa—typically less than 30 kilograms. These new varieties yield up to 50 percent more than current commercial varieties in nitrogen-poor soils. IMAS draws on strong collaboration between the public and private sectors involving the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council and DuPont Pioneer.

“Matching appropriate crop varieties to specific soil systems and ecologies can play a major role in improving productivity of fragile smallholder farming systems in Africa,” says Dr. Biswanath Das, a maize breeder at CIMMYT. “Increasing productivity on existing farmland will prevent encroachment into marginal or virgin lands which leads to further soil degradation.” Helping farmers deal with the challenge of low-fertility soils will remain a key focus for international and national actors in Africa throughout 2015, the UN International Year of Soils. Open discussion platforms should therefore be encouraged to facilitate comprehensive and inclusive dialogue on soil matters. A recent tweet-chat forum titled ‘#TalkSoil’ initiated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Shamba Shape Up (a Kenyan television program on smallholder agriculture) brought together scientists, farmers, regulators and other actors to discuss  a single topic – soil.

It is therefore important that GSW deliberations formulate sustainable solutions for farmers to build healthier soils, and to nurture and maintain them. This will not only arrest soil deterioration but also protect a critical livelihood for billions, and a source and ‘sustainer’ of life for us all – agriculture, deeply rooted and inseparable from soil.

Links for more information

Update | Videos—Maize for hungry soils | Maize that thrives in poor soils
Follow the IMAS conversation on Twitter during #GlobalSoilWeek via #IMASPro
Global Soil Week 2015
International Year of Soils 2015

For information on the IMAS project, please contact: Biswanath Das: IMAS Project Leader| Brenda Wawa: media contact