Effort to confront Africa's soil health crisis helps triple yield
With the steady drain of essential nutrients from African soils looming as a major threat to food security across the continent, a new report released last week finds that over the last five years, 1.7 million African farmers in 13 countries have embraced farming practices that have rejuvenated 1.6 million hectares and helped them double or even triple crop yields.
The analysis from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) focuses on intensive efforts initiated five years ago to move aggressively to support smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, where a lack of agriculture extension services and a scarcity of basic soil supplements have contributed to severely depressed yields for crucial staples like maize, banana and cassava. While farmers in many parts of the world regularly harvest up to five tons of maize per hectare (about 2.5 acres), African farmers typically harvest one ton. Overall, depleted soils cost African farmers $4 billion each year in lost productivity.
"We've shown that it's possible to work on a very large scale to help smallholder farmers adopt sustainable and profitable approaches to crop production, with the proof there for all to see in the form of significantly larger yields," said Dr. Bashir Jama, director of AGRA's Soil Health Program.
The new evidence of success in addressing what many agriculture experts view as the most significant soil health crisis in the world comes in the wake of a June summit in Equatorial Guinea during which the leaders of African Union member countries pledged to significantly step up their support for the continent's long neglected agriculture sector. As part of their commitment to ending hunger in Africa by 2025, the heads of state cited the need to double agricultural productivity, with access to high quality "inputs" for crops at the top of the list.
According to the AGRA analysis, unsustainable farming practices, like a failure to rotate crops or apply mineral or organic fertilizers, along with persistent soil erosion, are depriving croplands across sub-Saharan Africa of 30 to 80 kilos per hectare of essential plant nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. The report warns that such losses threaten to "kill Africa's hopes for a food-secure future."
AGRA's Soil Health Program has approached the problem by supporting an extensive network of partnerships in 13 countries in which three million farmers have been trained in an approach to growing crops called "Integrated Soil Fertility Management" or ISFM. Already, some 1.7 million farmers have adopted ISFM practices, which involve doing things like mixing in organic matter such as crop residues and manure into the soil, applying small amounts of mineral fertilizers, and planting legume crops like cowpea, soybean and pigeon pea that can naturally deposit nitrogen into the soil.
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