AGRA Africa

Revitalising Africa’s Soils and Landscapes is Key for Enhancing our Food Security and Climate Resilience

By Tilahun Amede

This year’s environment day theme of accelerating land restoration aligns perfectly with Africa’s need to revitalize its soils, a critical yet often overlooked solution to Africa’s ongoing challenges of agricultural productivity. Healthy soils and landscapes have a direct positive influence on our livelihoods and environment.

Land degradation in Africa is severe, while the continent’s soil organic content falls below the benchmark. Land degradation, which includes soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity, poses a significant risk to food systems, especially in Africa, where agriculture forms the backbone of many economies and sustains the livelihoods of many people.  According to FAO’s, State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2022 report, over 58% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa experiences moderate to severe food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by declining soil health.

The soil and fertilizer summit highlighted the crucial role of soil health in Africa’s food systems. Case in point, the severe soil erosion in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley region has led to a significant decrease in agricultural yields, ranging from 30% to 50%. Decline in soil health not only affected plant nutrient supply but also aggravated drought effects. This decline has had a profound impact on food availability for millions of people. Similarly, in the Southern region of Africa, countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe have seen a 30% decrease in maize yields, which is the staple crop for the region.

These statistics paint a clear picture of the interconnectedness between soil health and food security.

Another significance of soil health that became apparent during the summit is its intrinsic link to climate change mitigation. Soil could be the single most important resource to enhance both food security and climate change mitigation in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, soils can also operate as climate change solutions; significantly more carbon is stored in the world’s soils than in the atmosphere. It is unfortunate that African countries, reliant on natural resources, are among the most impacted by climate change. Currently, 17 out of the 20 countries most impacted by climate change are in Africa, partly due to limited investment in managing their soils and landscapes.  

The recent flooding in Kenya and the drought in Zimbabwe clearly depict extreme weather patterns exacerbated by climate change. In Kenya, severe flooding has displaced thousands of people, destroyed crops, and eroded fertile soils, further diminishing the agricultural productivity and response capacity of affected regions.

With a healthy climate comes healthy soils, meaning enhanced water retention, reduced erosion, and increased resilience against extreme weather patterns. By investing in soil health, African countries can better withstand the adverse effects of climate change that affect our lands. Additionally, healthy soils are also producing nutrient dense, healthy food. It also hosts of a wide array of organisms that contribute to biodiversity, which is crucial for the ecosystem’s stability and resilience. Diverse soil ecosystems can support plant health and growth, reduce the prevalence of pests and diseases, and enhance nutrient cycling.

Healthy soils require integrated management, which includes i) application of balanced nutrients, coming from organic and mineral sources; ii) they should be enriched by organic matter through application of manure, compost, crop residue and other sources; iii) acidic and saline soils should be conditioned through application of lime and other soil conditioners; iv) our soils should be protected from wind and water erosion, v) they should not be frequently plowed to conserve the carbon and soil water and vi) most importantly, the soil microbial biodiversity should receive as much attention.

Evidently, enhancing soil health will be one of the most important environmental factors for ensuring the survival of humanity during the 21st century. This key factor will likely be more important than ever before as the expanding global human population faces the unprecedented challenges of a rapidly changing climate.

It is up to us- policymakers, development partners, farmers, and scientists, to recognize and act upon this information and provide solutions to manage and restore our soils. By restoring our soils, we can enhance productivity, combat climate change and preserve biodiversity.

The time to act is now!

The Author is the Director of climate change, Sustainable Productivity and Resilience at AGRA and a Professor of Systems Agronomy
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