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Healthy soils for African food security

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In all countries, poor and impoverished soils explain the low natural production of crops, whilst climate, in particular rainfall and temperature, is of secondary importance

© Catherine Ulitsky/USDA

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The more farmers there are, the less there is to eat; this is an historic pattern that has become an economic law worldwide, and still describes African reality today. Most agrarian countries, where agriculture is (one of) the most important contributors to national income, are characterised by serious food insecurity and poverty. In such countries, the ratio of consumers: producers is unfavourable and consequently farmers’ incomes are too low to invest in more productive systems.

These challenges are explored in the recently published book From Fed by the World to Food Security. Accelerating Agricultural Development in Africa, published by Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. Using the average national cereal yield growth rate as a quantitative measure, the book classifies 49 African countries into six categories in terms of their agricultural development since 1960. Countries of category 1 (the best examples of agricultural development) show average annual yield increases equal to those of developed countries worldwide that use fertilisers, improved crop varieties and plant protection products. Countries of category 6 (the worst examples of agricultural development) have, at present, lower yields than in the 1960s.

The publication looks at differences among the classes, as well as between countries within classes, and clearly shows that agricultural development in Africa is mainly determined by socio-economic and policy factors. The importance of identifying these factors is emphasised in the book in order to develop policy recommendations that either trigger or accelerate agricultural development, and contribute to suppressing hunger and poverty.

Agro-ecological factors, on the other hand, have less of an influence on the present degree of agricultural development. Nevertheless, in all countries, poor and impoverished soils explain the low natural production of crops, whilst climate, in particular rainfall and temperature, is of secondary importance. Average annual fertiliser use worldwide is 140 kg/ha, but Africa uses barely 20 kg/ha each year. As a result, whilst average cereal yields worldwide reach 4,000 kg/ha, African averages are at 1,300 kg/ha. The book’s authors thus consider fertiliser as the 'silver bullet' for Africa’s agricultural productivity and recommend that to scale-up Africa's green revolution, governments, business people and farmers' organisations should collaborate in creating an enabling environment for optimum fertiliser use. For example, the cost of fertiliser products needs to be considered. The use of improved crop varieties and crop protection products, for example, also needs to be promoted among farmers to optimise fertiliser use efficiency. Other key factors for the transformation of agriculture include the improvement and reduced cost of transporting agricultural inputs and outputs, crop-livestock integration and decreasing the gender gap. The book illustrates the latter by its linkage with crop yields: the average maize yield in the ten countries having the lowest gender index worldwide is only one tenth of the average yield in the ten countries with the highest gender index.

Also highlighted in the publication are the failings of external support to Africa, which tends to focus on tackling the symptoms of low production and low productivity instead of helping African countries to suppress the main cause of these issues – unhealthy soils. Poor soils are at the basis of Africa’s food insecurity and poverty challenges, and lead to a lack of food self-sufficiency and high household expenditure on food products. Consequently, money for housing and clothing, health and education is limited among African households. This explains the very low productivity of labor, the key bottleneck for the transition from agrarian to industrial countries; it limits the interest in foreign and national investments.

A policy that provokes the intensification of rain-fed agriculture in Africa would be a major step for change; both the productivity of land and labor improves considerably. Economically this is a lot more beneficial than investments in irrigation, while many more people can be reached.

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