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Experts Battle African Soil Health Crisis

Aug 25, 2014 07:40 PM EDT
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Africa is in the midst of a major agricultural crisis, with the quality of the continent's soil degrading at an alarming rate. However, new research has revealed that efforts to improve this situation are working, doubling to tripling crop yield in affected areas within the last five years.[Pictured: Malawian farmers work their land.]
(Photo : Flickr: Find Your Feet)

Africa is in the midst of a major agricultural crisis, with the quality of the continent's soil degrading at an alarming rate. However, new research has revealed that efforts to improve this situation are working, doubling to tripling crop yield in affected areas within the last five years.

According to an analysis from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), while your average maize farmer harvests about five tons of crop per hectare (about 2.5 acres), sub-Saharan African farmers are often lucky if they manage to get one ton per hectare out of their soil.

This is largely due to declining soil quality, where droughts, outdated farming techniques and limited access to fertilizer is severely hampering the region's potential to increase food production. In fact, a 2009 study by scientists at Stanford University found that unlike many regions that suffer from fertilizer overuse (such as China), African farmers use about ten times less fertilizer per hectare than the recommended global average.

This does nothing but exacerbate an already severe problem with crop yield in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, which already struggles with a lack of irrigation and is in the midst of a dangerous water crisis.

Thankfully, according to the AGRA analysis, 1.7 million African farmers in 13 countries have received aid and embraced new farming practices that have rejuvenated an estimated 1.6 million hectares of declining farmland.

This was largely achieved in an effort to educate African farmers about "Integrated Soil Fertility Management," a strategy characterized by use of mineral fertilizers and crop rotation to ensure that soil does not lose aspects particularly important for root growth and nutrient absorption.

The simple use of fertilizers alone has already shown to have a massive impact on local farming communities. Pedro Sanchez, who co-authored the Stanford study, recalled how in 2005, the country of Malawi was facing a serious food shortage.

"Then the government began subsidizing fertilizer and corn seeds," he explained in a release. "In just four years production tripled, and Malawi actually became an exporter of corn."

The AGRA report now reveals similar results seen within the last five years, with Tanzania and Ghana, in addition to Malawi, doubling if not tripling their maize, pea and bean yields.

Still, that's only half the battle. In the wake of climate change, severely under-irrigated African farmland will still need help. And going forward, the organization is working to educate a new generation of scientists, not just farmers, on the importance of soil health.

"There is much more to soil health than fertilizers, but they are an essential ingredient for unleashing the potential of Africa's smallholder farmers to create a uniquely African Green Revolution," Bashir Jama, director of AGRA's Soil Health Program, said in a statement.

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