Deborah Bossio’s blog post on the question “Can Africa afford to save its soils?” has generated an interesting discussion on the LinkedIn group Natural Resource Professionals. Here we highlight some of the points brought up by those across the world who contributed to the discussion.
The general consensus holds that soil rehabilitation in Africa (and elsewhere) is absolutely necessary, but the process of reaching a decent level of soil fertility is problematic due to the various players involved – from policymakers to agribusinesses to the smallholder farms, everyone holds a different agenda when comes to the importance of improving soils.
Or as one commenter put it: “efforts towards restoring the degraded soils and farm lands in African countries needs a holistic approach. Agricultural policies should be fine-tuned towards better practices for production.”
Many voiced that the responsibility oftentimes falls on the smallholder farmer who may not be able to bear the investment - the burden of time, effort, and cost - needed to improve their soil’s fertility, especially through organic means (ie. the subsistence farmer).
“In the US a farmer my change his methods and show a reduction in yield. However, the farmer can still drive to the local super market and buy what he wants to eat. As a subsistence farmer, if your yield decreases, it may mean that someone in your family starves. That sort of pressure makes it very difficult to implement change that in the next growing season or two may lead to an increase in yield. Maybe a food security safety net is needed to help make the transition.”
A food security net indeed! Policymakers and institutions would do well to recognize that improving soils should be both physically and economically feasible for farmers. “The system that produces better soil cannot cost the farmer and must actually pay the farmer,” said one commenter.
Every farmer surely would want an increase in yields, profit, and a reduction in labor, but can a smallholder farmer afford to have anything but immediate payoffs?
For example, one commenter explained how in Madagascar slash-and-burn agriculture is popular; poverty doesn't allow farmers to let the land lay fallow for long enough to restore before replanting.
And in Haiti “farmers rent land on typically a five-year lease. Here the common understanding between landholder and renter is that the renter will as far as possible, maximize returns, in other words, cut all the trees, and plant as much as possible, to transform the natural capital into financial capital. Incentives for improving land are less than zero.”
In both cases the system, or lack thereof, provides reverse incentives for investment in land restoration practices.
The right planting conditions
In order to establish a system, some replied that the conditions have to be right and favorable to the farmer:
“They can invest in degraded soils if restoration options are not capital-intensive and are congruent with the planning of family labor use.”
“The question [that] arises is from where would [the smallholders] get the natural and financial capital, as their access to natural resources have been curtailed. Secondly, the market forces are pushing them to migrate to urban centers, in search of alternative livelihoods.”
“Whether at mico- or macro-level, it's a matter of adequate spatial planning and cautious management of the transfer of natural resources… Soil degradation or soil fertility depletion occurs when there is wrong planning, and the latter entails lack of education for wise resource management. Economic policies should strive to restore the natural order [of] things, then our soils and food baskets will feel good!”
Most commenters agreed that it is the responsibility of institutions to help farmers by giving them access to knowledge of best farming practices and by investing in infrastructure such as fertilizer, appropriate tools, “markets, bio-digesters, credit for organic and inorganic soil amendments, sustainable commodity prices, international input subsidies to farmers in LDC, etc.”
To some, the answers already exist. There are already a number of techniques to improve soil fertility such as replacing the use of agrochemicals with organic fertilizers like manure and mulch, agroforestry, zero tillage, “appropriate inter/multi cropping, livestock integration, agroforestry, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, holistic management etc. [These] are all proven technologies that allow farmers to grow more with less at the same time,” increasing not only yields and incomes but “resilience, diversity, [and] food security.”
One commenter believes that part of the issue stems from the agricultural extension services and international aid institutions in many developing countries who “are more oriented to working with farmers on large farms than smallholders. As a consequence, while many established practices, legitimized by tradition and experience, help to preserve soils, some are detrimental.”
But is it true that the aid is perhaps inappropriately sized? What about community-based farming (see Thrive debate on large farms vs. small farms)?
In many countries, “smallholders through community-based approach[es], with key interventions [in] land, water and agroforestry management are… restoring degraded soils [both at the] farm and watershed level.”
An example was given of Russia from the 1930s to the 1970s. People were compelled to work on communes to produce grain for the war through large-scale farming. The land productivity was sub-par in comparison to the land given to the peasants to farm for themselves. In this vein, the commenter wrote, “an infusion of interest and self-pride might do wonders toward greater interest in utilizing more modern methods.”
While others argued against it:
“I believe quite strongly that community based approaches are not suitable for restoring soil fertility on farm fields. Farming is almost exclusively a household-based activity and households/individual farmers must find the solutions to soil fertility management at that level. Communal farming around the world has almost always been a disaster. Community-based approaches are appropriate for natural forest management, communal rangelands management and for coastal and for freshwater fisheries management.”
Reaping the unintended harvest
Finally, there is always a hint of caution when recommending interventions.
In Haiti, one commenter warns that attempts to improve soil fertility from outside sources can sometimes end up backfiring. In this case study, after providing women with sacks of compost and teaching them how to make their own, they found out that 6 months later, there was no improvement in their soil. Instead the men in the community had set about making compost to sell to development agencies 30-60 km away.
“So here, even given the technology, [knowledge,] and choice to improve their own soils, market conditions and cash incentives from far away can undermine (and in other situations, surely also support) adoption of more sustainable practices.” The commenter asked, “given these conditions and the high demand for land that discourages fallow, what alternate conditions could encourage soil improvements, intensification, etc. to increase returns on investment?”
With over 67 comments on the Natural Resources Management LinkedIn Group, it is safe to say that most commenters believe the answer to investing in soil fertility “has to mean more profit, more diversity, more security“ for them – a triple win.