Soil health debate is about eating now, tomorrow

Thursday, May 9th, 2024 10:13 | By
Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi delivers address at the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit. PHOTO/@MusaliaMudavadi/X

The Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit brings a hot global debate to Nairobi soils. Yes, even though soils don’t look that hot, especially now with the rains, the debate around how we manage this resource is getting hotter.

The Summit, happening this week in Nairobi, brings together African heads of state and senior government officials to deliberate on the continent’s approach to ensure productivity – food now and soil health – and the ability to produce in the future. 

There is an evident need to enhance production in order to meet the ever growing demand for food. This race to increase production is what brought us to the current high-input, resource-intensive farming systems (Green Revolution), which began in the 1960s for most African countries.

While greater production was also attributed to the introduction of high-yielding varieties, popularly known as hybrids, widespread fertilizer and pesticide use was the main signature of the green revolution. This approach came with significant negative impact on soil as well as biodiversity, which is important for food and agriculture.

Evidence later showed that the losses made in the attempt to increase production of a few staples, mainly maize and wheat, in Kenya outweighed any reported gains of the green revolution. High use of fertilisers destroyed the very soils we intended to improve, while pesticides killed beneficial organisms that helped us produce.

Despite immense evidence on the negative impacts of synthetic fertilizers, Kenya, like many other African countries, remains hooked to a form of agriculture that is heavily dependent on synthetic fertilizer.

This week marks an important point in the history of African and Kenyan agriculture. In the last summit in Abuja, African governments made a declaration to increase fertilizer use per hectare to 50 kilos as an approach to increase productivity, but this did not have any impact as the continent, which is still the most food-insecure region, hosting over 30 percent of the total food-insecure population, 15 years after  the declaration.

Clearly, more fertilizer is not equal to more food.

Having a meaningful debate about fertilizer is, however, a major challenge in the region. The business interests of big fertilizer companies often carry the day with a spice or two of basic greenwash initiatives to demonstrate that they too are transitioning with everyone else, but in the end, they are there to keep the status quo.

Governments, on the other hand, find it convenient to keep promoting fertilizer use, including through providing expensive subsidies, with justification that changing course might result in  serious impacts on food security.

The big question is how to support a transition towards better, holistic soil health management, starting with regional policy change to alter practices at the farm level. There is a need to replace the narrative that has been ingrained in us that synthetic fertilizer is the only way to nourish our crops.

There are many different ways to improve soil fertility by ensuring availability of different key nutrients in the soil, such as intercropping and crop rotations based on the nutrient needs of different crops, use of manure, organic fertilizers and others.

The urgency of the shift is clear, as Africa cannot continue to bite the hand that feeds her. We have to reverse the negative impacts of poor soil management practices as soon as yesterday. We cannot continue to put pend the discussion about holistic soil health in pursuit for short term productivity gains.

While we definitely have to eat now, pumping more fertilizers into our soils is not the best solution. While fertilizer will continue to play a major role in our agriculture, we need to ensure that we do not lose the capacity to come up with alternative interventions for soil fertility. 

— The writer is a food systems expert at APSID Consulting

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