There is much discussion in the development arena about the struggle ahead to feed the seven plus billion, of the methods proposed towards food security, building resilience, safeguarding water resources and so on. But few stop to ponder the basic ingredient in all of this: the very land under our feet, and the starting point of all agricultural productivity. At the European Development Days, EuropeAid hosted a Lab session dedicated to the relevance of soils in development policy, featuring the release earlier this year of the first Soil Atlas of Africa.
In many places, it can take up to 2000 years to create a mere 10 centimetres of fertile soil, which can be washed or blown away in a matter of hours in a severe storm, or depleted in a few years of poorly managed land and water use.
Across the planet, arable land is being diminished: for example, by urbanisation, mono-culture, farming on slopes, and deforestation. In 2011 alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil was lost, at a time when the land needs better management in order to provide enough food for the exploding population.
In 2009, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that soil degradation in Africa is reducing crop yields by an average of 8%. In Rwanda alone, 1.4 million tons of soil, which could feed 40,000 people, is lost every year. The value of the food lost in that way comes to 1.9% of Rwanda’s gross domestic product.
The Soil Data and Information Lab session at the recent EU Dev Days relayed the key messages that fertile soil is finite and needs protection by policy makers, and that abundant crop production and high yields requires efficient and effective management of soil resources.
The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has spent recent years developing a Soil Atlas series to highlight the importance of soil and bring awareness of the pressures that soil is under. First came the European Atlas, followed by the Arctic Atlas, which is important for climate change and understanding the implications of warming permafrost, and one on Soil Biodiversity. The Soil Atlas for Africa was released in 2013, and next year will see the production of an Atlas for South and Central America, and the Caribbean.
Soil concerns for Africa are particularly acute, as the continent’s population is predicted to increase to 2.5 billion people by the end of the century. Approximately half of its area is desert, barren or semi-arid and it contains large areas of naturally nutrient poor soils.
“Add to this pressures from pollution, mineral exploration, deforestation and an increasingly urban society, which means that more and more people are depending on an already limited resource. This places enormous pressure on the remaining conductive or fertile land,” said Arwyn Jones, a researcher from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and co-author of the Soil Atlas of Africa, at the European Development Days. Watch his powerpoint presentation from the EDD Lab session here.
The Soil Atlas of Africa is the result of a collaborative initiative of the European Union, the African Union and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to support and encourage the sustainable use of soil resources in Africa and the Global Soil Partnership for Food Security.
In an easily readable format, the Atlas shows how the soils of Africa vary by region: what are their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses and what can be done to improve the situation.
The Atlas was compiled for broad range of users, from policy makers, farmers, soil managers, the education sector and the general public. It also serves scientific groups, including the climate change community.
In two parts, it has a mapping section and a practical textbook section.
“The mapping part is more geared towards national or regional policy making because it shows the broad patterns and characteristics, and what can be done within that context, “ continued Jones. “The textbook is more relevant to farmers as it explains the fundamental processes in soils: water management, nutrients, the importance of organic matter, pH and so on.”
Conservation Agriculture gets special attention with methods such as promoting minimum disturbance of the soil to preserve organic matter; incorporating crop residue into the land rather than burning it off; and crop rotation, using plants to naturally fix nitrogen into the soils to supplement or reduce dependency on mineral fertilisers.
“A lot of indigenous farming practices that were abandoned in terms of more conventional systems are now making a come-back because they are more gentle on the soil,” remarked Jones.
One of the main conclusions from the Lab session was the need for improved policy relevant data that reflect current conditions. For many parts of Africa, much of the information is legacy data, collected in the 1950’s, or even earlier than that. The EC is looking for Africa to develop its own data collection programme and is planning to set up an assessment next year to identify the main trends and threats to soil, by country.
“Fertile and well-managed soils are of fundamental importance in the struggle against hunger, poverty and climate change,” stressed Arwyn Jones. “Policies that support proven land management practices will allow communities to better prevent land degradation, restore degraded lands and reduce the need for further conversion of natural forests and grasslands.”
“The farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa must be acknowledged as custodians of the soil for future generations,” he said, “and they need to be supported with the relevant tools and knowledge to manage their natural resources in a sustainable manner.”
Photographs by Arwyn Jones/JRC