This blogpost (with inputs from John Birchall) has been published prior to my participation at the FARA 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week. View it on the the AASW6 blog
With up to 9.3 billion people to feed in 2050 in the world, it becomes urgent to find ways to increase agricultural productivity across Africa, the second most populated continent. One option developed so far by humans is “boosting” soil fertility with chemical fertilizers. But is this option sustainable? What are alternatives to that? These two questions are always raised when it comes to discuss on how to improve soil fertility through chemical fertilizers.
Implications of using chemical fertilizers
Man has excessively used chemical fertilizers which have in turn reacted in the soil to result in unproductive soils. The same soils which have yearly been robed away of its nutrients have not been replenished making them unproductive. Chemical fertilizers have not only been reactive to the soils but also too expensive and not economical to the farmers. The utilization of chemical fertilizers that were supposed to help in increasing yields degrades lands and makes agriculture not really profitable for farmers. In some cases were lands are affected by advanced degradation, chemical fertilizers appear like the panacea. But they are not! When we start considering the potential risks in terms of poisoning, burns, cancers, birth defects and environmental degradation, chemical fertilizers should be taken with extreme cautious. Therefore there is a strong need to develop alternatives to that situation. Such alternatives might help producers to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers; and ideally stop it.
Promoting organic agriculture as an alternative?
Organic agriculture is a proven alternative to promote a more sustainable use of lands. “Organic agriculture is one of the best practices in ensuring environmental sustainability. It sustains the fertility of soils, ecosystems and sustains the health of people. It relies on locally adapted improved ecological processes and cycles, and natural biodiversity rather than the use of synthetic inputs and genetically modified materials.” Those were some of the words by which the Honourable Emmanuel T. Chenda, MP, Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Zambia, launched the 2012 Second African Organic Conference, entitled “Mainstreaming Organic Agriculture in the African Development Agenda” held in Zambia. Organic agriculture involves the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care to ensure we are producing food to satisfy our current and future needs.
How organic farming is attracting youth
In Zambia, a group of volunteers sponsored by the British Council held a meeting to offer an alternative to fertilizers and allow people to grow more and better food. Solid waste transformation into compost was one of the techniques presented. Since that meeting nearly a dozen chiefdom’s have adopted the ideas placed in front of 150 young people and the number will grow as more workshops are held. All who attended left wanting to both know more and tell others of new (some may say old) ways of growing food, raising the profile and status of farming, so encouraging young people to stay and grow crops. Attracting youth in agriculture in rural Zambia will have some meta-consequences: it is not only growing more food, but also reducing rural-urban drift and have positive impacts on a number of socio-economic problems, such as HIV-AIDS for which Zambia has one of the largest rates in Africa.
Another experience in Benin
In Benin, where the economy is based on agriculture, soil infertility is an issue. The NGO “Actions pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable” (ACED) based in Benin is encouraging farmers to fertilize their soil using water hyacinth (from Lake Nokoué) compost. Indeed water hyacinth can be a good source of nutrients for soil. Water hyacinth can be used on soil either as green manure or compost. As green manure, it can be buried in the soil or used as mulch. The plant is ideal for composting. After removing the water hyacinth, it can be left to dry a few days before being mixed with ash, soil and animal manure. Microbial decomposition decomposes fats, lipids, proteins, sugars and starches. The mixture is left in the compost pile; the heat of tropical climates allows accelerating the process and producing rich compost that can be applied directly on the soil. Water hyacinth compost increases soil fertility and crop yields and, in general, improves the quality of the soil. This activity is engaging many rural youths who collect the water hyacinth and transform it into compost to be sold to farmers.
In Accra, from the 15th to 20th, will be held the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW6) on the topic “Africa Feeding Africa through Agricultural Science and Innovation”. During this continental event, major agricultural development institutions will gather to discuss what agriculture we want for Africa. One response is that we need agriculture that produces enough to feed African growing population while protecting lands for future generation.
What alternatives do you know to reduce or substitute the use of chemical fertilizers in Africa? What are the strategies to ensure farmers use them? How can we better interest youth into organic agriculture? Share your experiences to reinforce a more land-protective agriculture in Africa!
Photo credit: ACED