Urgent Action Needed To Address Africa’s Soil Health Issues, Say Experts

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One of the best prospects for feeding Africa’s rapidly growing population is to increase the sustainable use of fertilizers, a high-level panel of experts is expected to say today at an international meeting of the World Food Prize.

Despite 10-year-old commitments to expand the use of fertilizer in African agriculture, the continent still averages only around one-tenth the amount of what is used in industrialized countries per hectare.

With farmers not replenishing nutrients after consecutive harvests, 40 per cent of the continent’s soils already face widespread nutrient depletion. Increasing fertilizer use must go hand-in-hand with more soil and crop specific plant nutrition and be framed in a broader set of efforts promoting soil health.

Africa has experienced an accelerated growth in fertilizer demand in the past decade, but this growth builds on a very low base and consequently African crop yields are still far below those of other countries.

The panel will include the former President of Nigeria, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as the winner of the 2017 World Food Prize, H.E. Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, the former Agriculture Minister of Nigeria who now runs the African Development Bank.

In June 2006, the African Union Ministers of Agriculture convened in Abuja, Nigeria under the patronage of H.E. Obasanjo, for an historic summit focused on how to improve the continent’s access to fertilizers to ensure food security and drive economic growth. Dr. Adesina, then with the Rockefeller Foundation, was another visionary leader behind the 2006 summit.

Also joining the panel will be African Union Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko who will express the African Union’s ongoing strong interest in promoting enhanced access of African farmers to fertilizers and a holistic approach to addressing soil health challenges in Africa. Richard Mkandawire of the Alliance for African Partnership and representatives of two major global fertilizer companies, Mosaic and OCP, will round out the panel.

The experts are speaking at the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium to assess progress in the decade since the historic 2006 meeting of the African Union, which called for a steep increase in the use of fertilizers on the continent in order to promote greater food security.

The panel is expected to call for renewed efforts to increase the availability and use of fertilizers in Africa, recommending a new African Union summit to take place to outline the steps needed to improve plant nutrition and soil health.

“No country in the world has successfully boosted agricultural yields without increasing their use of fertilizers,” indicates H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sackothe African Union Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture.

“The Abuja Summit provided an excellent diagnosis of the issues contributing to insufficient access to fertilizers, and it is important for farmers, policymakers, the industry, civil society and all stakeholders to keep a focus on the correct remedies, also within a broader scope of sustainable soil management since fertilizers will be most effective when applied to healthy soils.”

With the African population set to grow by 1.3 billion people by 2030, increasing yields will be critical for farmers to deliver on food security. Globally, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization calculates that more than three-quarters of extra food production will need to come from increased yields on existing farmland, compared to putting more land under cultivation or increasing the intensity of use.

The FAO has also called for a “shift in widening the issue of soil fertility beyond fertilizer use through the adoption of sustainable soil management”, calling for high level policy commitment through more resource-efficient, sustainable and economically-efficient production systems, a recommendation that this panel will echo.

In the landmark 2006 agreement, African leaders declared that an African Green Revolution was “long overdue” in order to help African farmers to escape from their “poverty trap”. Fertilizers were discussed as a “strategic commodity” which could help address the low crop yields and tackle the growing soil fertility crisis.

The leaders then resolved “to increase the level of use of fertilizer from the current average of eight kilograms per hectare to an average of at least 50 kilograms per hectare by 2015”. This is compared to a global average of around 120 kilograms per hectare.

Yet today, more than ten years since the summit, average fertilizer use in Africa is only at 13 kilograms per hectare – far from the target set back in Abuja a decade ago.