Soil health is food wealth

22 Sep 2017

The world loses more than 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil each year, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) through erosion, compaction, chemical pollution and nutrient depletion. But the global population is rapidly growing as is the demand for food, 95 percent of which is directly or indirectly produced on our soils.

An estimated 83 percent of rural population in Africa depends on their land for livelihood, yet 40 percent of the continent’s land is currently degraded. As a result food production is hampered and it could get worse.

Until Africa urgently addresses the health of its soils, it is delaying a major economic, social and food crisis, says Prof. Victor Chude, a leading soil scientist, ‎President at Soil Science Society of Nigeria  and Chairperson of the African Soil Partnership Steering Committee. Prof. Chude was a key panelist at a session on soil and nutrient needs during the 2017 West Africa Fertilizer Agribusiness Conference in Ghana. Prof. Chude shares his insights on why the soil fertility is an integral part of Africa’s agriculture transformation.

Q: What is the cause of soil infertility in Africa?
A. A lot of our soils are losing their fertility because of nutrient mining and general poor management. We are taking off more nutrients from the soil to feed our crops but forget about feeding the soil. Besides, our farmers are not using enough fertilizers. Most parts of Africa still use up to 10 kgs of nutrients per hectare as opposed to the 50 kgs/ha recommended by African Heads of State in 2006. For a long time soil has been neglected in Africa.

Emphasis has always been on fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. In Nigeria, for example, when fertilizers where introduced farmers rejected them because it was strange to them and they were not backed by education to how to use them. Farmers have for a long time relied on what their grandparents taught them; applying animal manure and fallowing. When government realized the need to teach farmers about fertilizers, farmers saw the benefits and started applying fertilizer. But there was not enough information about the soil and one brand of fertilizer was produced for the whole country which was not correct. There is a lot of variability in the soil. Recently the Soil Science Society of Nigeria came out strongly on the need for soil testing. Now a study was done in the 1990s to produce a soil map of the country. Now universities in Nigeria and across Africa have soil departments and people are studying soils but the number of soil scientists is still low compared to accountants or bankers at a time soil health is an issue as we talk about improving food production.

Has Africa made headway in popularizing soil tests and surveys?
Yes. We have regional fertilizer recommendations using soil analysis. The campaign is catching on across Africa. Governments are beginning to realize the importance of soil maps, the only thing we ask is that this effort be sustained through proper funding. Soil tests and surveys cost money. We must invest in this exercise to secure our food production.

How current or reliable are our soil maps in Africa?
I must say Africa has something to start on rather than having nothing at all. With the modern technology more data is being generated and the more we can populate the maps we have.

Those without any soil maps are taking a leap in the dark. The first question investors interested in commercial agriculture ask is ‘do you have any soil information and can we take a look’. And saying wait a minute is not helpful. No investor will want to spend money studying the soil but if they have basic information they can choose any area which has the physical and chemical characteristics they need and proceed.

There are critics who argue that Africa should not use fertilizers citing pollution of the soils and the environment in general, your take?
Our soils are low in nutrition and the quantities of fertilizer we are using based on the evaluation tests done are so low that even if you increased the application to 50kg/ha of total nutrients there will not have any adverse effect on the soil.

The soil is a living entity just like a human being. If you get the wrong treatment the consequences are serious and if you give the soil the wrong fertilizer you kill it. Many civilizations have disappeared because of failing to properly manage soils.

Do you think there is political will to address the soil fertility issue given Africa’s commitments like the Maputo Declaration and the Abuja Declaration which focus on agriculture development?
That is the issue. In 2006 when we had the Africa Fertilizer Summit in Abuja all heads of Government signed to increase fertilizer use at the farmer’s level up to 50kg/ha by 2015, ten years down the line it has not happened. We have missed the opportunity but I think with greater commitment this can be realized and Africa can prioritize soil health and promote the use fertilizers.

If the soil health issues in Africa are not addressed, in the next five years either Europe will be in trouble or a lot of our youths are going to perish on the high seas. If the soil is not properly managed yields are low and will continue to drop. Africa does not have the kind of money to continue to import food and there will be a lot of restlessness. Agriculture is the only sector that can turn things around but for it to do so we have to invest in agriculture and the well-being of the soil is part of the solution.