Soil science, food production and hunger in Africa


A child dies from malnutrition or related causes every five seconds. Every child who dies from hunger is assassinated. And we have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror. We have to put a stop to this.

Jean Ziegler

Soil as a resource

A long history of land use

Ever since man learned to cultivate, soil has been considered as a source of food for humanity. Agriculture was born during the Neolithic period, when the economy of human societies evolved from gathering, hunting and fishing to farming and ranching. The first known crops were wheat and barley. Cultivation of cereals and legumes favored the development of the population during the Neolithic, and the development of agricultural techniques such as the use of domesticated animals, irrigation, or intensive farming encouraged the development of civilizations in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, India, China or America. In the West, improved cultivation techniques favored the development and expansion of agriculture during Roman times and the Middle Ages, further improving the living conditions of farmers. Especially since the discovery of America (AKA collision against Europe), globalization of agricultural products initiated.

Fruits and vegetables in the Mercado Libertad, in Guadalajara (Jalisco, Mexico). By A. Jordán. Click to see the original picture at Imaggeo.

More food than people?

During the 20th century, technological revolution shot agricultural production worldwide, so that, now, the amount of food produced far exceeds the needs of feeding the world’s population. Only in the European Union, for example, the 1980s were years during which large quantities of surplus agricultural products were donated, stored or destroyed. We can say that the problems are over and that humanity has been able to banish hunger (ironic mode).

Ranchers spill milk in fornt of the European Parliament to protest against overproduction in Europe. Source: ABC. Click the image to visit the original source.

Hunger and the failure of the redistribution of resources

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 239 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were hungry/undernourished in 2010 (its most recent estimate). 925 million people were hungry worldwide. Africa was the continent with the second largest number of hungry people, as Asia and the Pacific had 578 million, principally due to the much larger population of Asia when compared to sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa actually had the largest proportion of its population undernourished, an estimated 30 percent in 2010, compared to 16 percent in Asia and the Pacific (FAO 2010).  Thus almost one in three people who live in sub-Saharan Africa were hungry, far higher than any other region of the world, with the exception of South Asia.

http://www.worldhunger.org/

Addressing hunger in Africa or in other areas is not only a matter of agricultural production. The degree of self-sufficiency of a country depends largely on global markets for wheat, rice and maize, which dominate the trade in staple foods, whose prices are not necessarily related to supply and demand (thanks very much, economic liberalism). On the other hand, many governments have decided to replace the production of staple foods in their countries for cash crops or industrial production, allowing them to import these foods. Initially, the idea is not bad, and enables movement of the population from agriculture to industry and services. However, over time, the lack of domestic production creates dependence on exports. There are other factors involved, but this may partly explain, for example, why a traditional producer of maize, as Mexico, now depends on imports from the United States. Aproximately, Mexico will import 45% of the corn consumed in 2014-2015. Can Mexico revert this trend?

A woman sells a variety of maize in Tlaxcala, Mexico. Courtesy of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Click to see the original image at Flickr.
A woman sells a variety of maize in Tlaxcala, Mexico. Courtesy of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Click to see the original image and details at Flickr.

Inadequate soil management leads to degradation

Despite the geopolitical, economic and social factors that lead to poverty globally, soil is still the source of our food. Adequate and sustainable land management enable production of food and other goods in the long term. But what about when is it not? Globally, it is considered that approximately one third of the world’s arable land has been lost through degradation processes. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than half of the arable land suffers important processes of physical and / or chemical. Soy production has caused 55 million tons of topsoil lost every year in Brazil. Also in the first-world: in the 1930s, wind erosion devastated millions of hectares of farmland in the USA.

Global status of human-induced soil degradation. Click to visit the original site.

Over-exploitation of African soil produces hunger

The depletion of soil resources is a problem that particularly affected small farmers. Despite this, the implementation of appropriate land management practices remains very low, due to conflict and limited access to financial resources and markets. In the past, in arid areas, the soil was allowed to rest after periods of intense crop or drought. However, at present, soil is continuously degraded due to poor management decisions that, in turn, are due to economic pressures, increasing the demand for a growing population and lack of foresight and knowledge on sustainable management resource.

Can soil scientists help?

African irrational borders designed for decolonization, political instability, warlords, piracy, mass population displacements due to conflicts or problems in the distribution of humanitarian aid have been cited as factors causing poverty . It is true that this generates cultural and social disorganization that requires political commitment from western countries that have caused these problems (yes, accept it). Often developed countries disguise development policies as incentives for multinationals. Although discussing this should need another blog, just to laugh about: some serious people even think that global poverty will be eradicated by global corporations.

I open a parenthesis. Simplifying a bit, it is ironic that the West pretend to help masses of people displaced to arid sites to find water in the desert. No water in the desert! Simply, people displaced by conflicts should be able to go back home. I close the parenthesis.

Men and children withdrawing water for irrigation in the Dogon plateau (Mali) during a sandstorm day. By Velio Coviello. Click to see the original image and details at Imaggeo.

In addition to political commitment which, unfortunately, is far from occur, soil science can help. How to encourage the development of sustainable land management policies by small farmers? There are several possibilities, though I believe that strengthening the rights of farmers on their own land is the most important. But it is not enough. We need to encourage (or hinder) the development of a new generation of African soil scientists, allowing the financing of projects and research centers, as well as collaboration and training of African scientists in international institutions.

Ploughing in the Central Rift Valley, Ethiopia. By Saskia Keesstra. Click to see the original image and details at Imaggeo.

Adopting techniques that combine traditional methods such as water harvesting and intercropping with rational  use of fertilizers and pesticides is a key issue. But there are no global solutions, as each region has its own constraints (physical or otherwise), so research is needed to find regional- or local-scale solutions and to equip farmers with the knowledge and tools they need for proper management floor.

Discussing research for water efficient maize for Africa. Courtesy of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Click to see the original image at Flickr.
Discussing research for water efficient maize for Africa. Courtesy of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Click to see the original image and details at Flickr.

Learn how I do it, I’m smarter

However, it is not enough to reach out, offer our knowledge and “teach African farmers”. Farmers know! African scientists are not illiterate! Knowledge transfer can not be done in one direction.

Africa’s future can not be built on depleted soils. Conservation, restoration and improvement of land must become a global priority, or will be too late for Africa. Europeans should feel especially responsible.

A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Australia provides funding to the Institute through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), to improve African food security. By Kate Holt. Click to see the original image and details at Flickr.
A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Australia provides funding to the Institute through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), to improve African food security. By Kate Holt. Click to see the original image and details at Flickr.

 

This post has been published also in the EGU Blog Network.

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