Sunday, 9 September 2018


Volume 8, Issue 2

April-June 2018

Chair's Foreword
Sustainable Soil Health in Africa
Earth Science Events
References and selected reading

Chair's Foreword*
We address the problem of sustaining healthy soils in Africa, responsible for provision of our food, as well as processing of drinking water, and absorption of carbon and other benefits which help to maintain a healthy human population. We note however, the challenges and threats Africa is facing to maintain its independence of food and seed systems, as  poor soil health  accompanied by widespread food insecurity is being used as justification to introduce high doses of expensive fertiliser into African soils and GM seeds that are put forward as an improvement over traditional seed sharing systems.

Sustainable Soil Health in Africa

In many African societies traditionally the Earth is a feminine and divine nature principle according to which life and society is organised. The living are merely seen as custodians of the Earth, which has ecological implications in terms of the responsibility to preserve the environment for future generations. Furthermore, the Earth was seen as a living being, not just lifeless matter.
   At the end of the 20th century, the Earth Sciences were transformed by a paradigm shift in the way that scientists view the Earth. James Lovelock's Gaian view of our planet, articulated the idea that the Earth, rather than being an inert lump of rock, is actually a living functioning organism [1].
   This view which sees the earth as dynamic and alive has percolated down through the earth sciences, such that today, in soil science, the soil is seen, not as inert matter, but as a living system. Whereas in the case of the living Earth, the new science of physiology of the earth (geo-physiology) was born, so in the case of the soil, we have seen the birth of the science of "soil physiology".
   This new way of viewing the soil has put a new emphasis on the question of soil health and soil quality, which is seen to have certain indicators, five of which are  identified by Rickson [2] as: soil structure, organic material content, water/air infiltration capacity, biota (the animal and plant life of the particular region) and nutrients. Karlen  earlier in 1997 had defined soil health as "..the soil's fitness to support crop growth without becoming degraded or otherwise harming the environment"[3].
   Natasha Gilbert writing in Nature has stated  what most would agree: That the key to tackling hunger in Africa is enriching its soil. "The big debate is about how we do it"[4]. A case study is recounted of Eneless Beyadi who borrows $24 from a European friend to afford the cost of two 50kg bags of chemical fertiliser. But this fertiliser ensures her crop and harvest is significantly more successful than those of her neighbours, who have not been able to afford fertiliser.
   The soil health project of the Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA) has identified the net loss of nutrients from soils in many parts of Africa and Gilbert notes "Fertilisers make such a profound difference here because the rusty red soil, as in many parts of Africa, is deficient in organic matter and in key nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous" [5]. Over the past 30 years the net loss in these nutrients equates to $4 billion of fertiliser. A clear message from the article on what it proposes is the solution: substantial doses of fertiliser. The AGRA funded study by Martey et al notes that 90% of farmers in Ghana are small holdings of  less than 2 hectares in size, with production being mainly rain-fed. The study made its focus on the factors influencing mineral fertiliser adoption among small holder farmers in northern Ghana , and like other studies proposes the most practical solution to seeing lack of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous is high doses of fertiliser [6,7]. The high food insecurity of the study area further convinces the study's authors that increasing the adoption of high fertiliser use among small holder farms is the only solution to enrich the regional soil, despite high costs. AGRA and its scientists and government supporters urge the local adoption of  policy to  subsidise smallholder farm purchases of both fertilisers and GM seeds (usually termed "improved seeds").

                                                                                                                                     Photo:Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN.
   To balance the view of fertiliser being the key to boost soil fertility we have the alternative view taken by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the UN, pushing for an approach which is agro-ecological and therefore takes into account the conservation of the local ecology; not simply high-yielding seed and fertiliser to promote that seed; but also the environment in which the seed thrives, the health of the soil, the level of groundwater and its freedom of pollution, vegetation, protection against soil degradation,etc. Also pushing for cheaper more organic and sustainable solutions: such as no till farming; mulching, and "fertiliser" plants that boost the soil's nitrogen content organically. According to some reports, these techniques are beginning to raise yields and improve soil fertility.  The promotion of fertiliser trees is currently taking place in at least four countries: Malawi, Niger, Kenya and Rwanda. However, critics complain that farmers are slow to adopt these methods as they require significantly more labour. This is an uneven observation by critics  in so far as the cost to purchase fertiliser or "improved" seeds is surely a much greater obstacle than difficulty of labour. Furthermore, because seeds and fertilizer are often out of range of affordability they encourage falling into debt and dependency ties (through loans) both on a personal and a national level.
   The response of  AGRA (and its agro-business directed research) to nitrogen fixing plants is to simply now fund research into GM crops that have these nitrogen fixing properties bred into them. Ken Giller, an agronomist from the Netherlands, has been given a $22 million grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to research a GM nitrogen-fixing legume crop[8]. This looks like  aiming to neo-colonise an African market for nitrogen fixing plants where one has yet to emerge; because companies will eventually patent such plants and farmers will have no choice but to purchase the seed for them. It is in these circumstances we see the need for an organisation such as AFSA to voice legitimate concerns over the motivation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation philanthropy  and its high threat to African food and seed sovereignty[9].
   It is disappointing  to observe that perhaps the whole debate has actually gone backwards in the past 26 years. Back in 1992, FAO in Rome published a report on Soil and Water Conservation in Subsaharan Africa which showed how a variety of traditional practices in soil and water conservation served to increase soil fertility and productiveness. Yields were seen to be 30% higher than those gained with conventional agriculture[10]. This means that agroecological methods have been proven, but  not applied on the ground for the past 26 years. AFSA is helping to redress this situation; holding workshops for African farmers on a pan African level [11].

Earth Science Events

  October 11-13, 2018

Towards Sustainable Management of Natural Resources: resources for generations yesterday, today and tommorrow

VISION: Earth sciences week organised by Regional Centre for Environmental and Mining Geological Studies
VENUE: Bukavu, DR Congo

October 24-25, 2018

ISERD, 475th International Conference on Environment and Natural Science

VISION: Scholars, scientists, engineers and students present and share their ongoing research activities with a view to enhancing research relations globally.
VENUE: Cape Town, South Africa.

October 25-29, 2018

The 12th Conference of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment

VISION: A conference focused on earth observation and geospatial science in service of sustainable development goals. Conference themes include 1) Big data and data mining of geospatial data. 2) Climate change implications for sustainable development. 3) Geospatial science for early warning systems for geohazards.4) Influence of African space policy on the youth generation 5) Remote sensing for natural resources management, etc.
VENUE:Alexandria, Egypt.

November 3-5, 2018

African Food Systems and the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs)

VISION: A conference hosted by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) on the future of food systems in Africa and the launch of a continental campaign,
VENUE: Dakar, Senegal

References and selected reading

1. Lovelock, J., The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, Oxford University Press, 1988.
2. Rickson, R.J., presentation "Improving Soil Structure and Reducing Soil Degradation", Managing
    Soils for Profit & Restoration, Cranfield University, 19th January, 2016.
3. Karlen, D. L., M. Mausbach, R. Cline, J. Doren, R. Harris, G. Shuman, Soil Quality: A Concept 
    Definition and Framework for Evaluation, Soil Sci. Soc. of Am. J., Vol. 61, No. 1, p. 4-10,  1997
4. Gilbert, N., Dirt Poor: The key to tackling hunger in Africa is enriching its soil, Nature,  vol.
    483, page 525-7,29 march 2012.
5. Ibid.
6. Martey, E.,Wiredu, A.N., Etwire, P.,Fosu, M., Buah, S., Bidzakin, J., Ahiabor, B., Kusi, F.,
   Fertiliser Adoption and Use Intensity Among Smallholder Farmers in Northern Ghana,
    Sustainable Agric. Res.,Vol. 3, No.1, 2014.
7. Lu, C. and |H. Tian, Global nitrogen and phosphorous fertiliser use for agriculture and production
    in the past century:shifted hotspots and nutrient imbalance, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 9, 181-192,
8. Gilbert, N., Op. Cit.
9. Mayet, Mariam, Dangers of the Gates Foundation: Displacing Seeds and Farmers, Grassroots International, 18th Nov. 2015.
10. Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations, Soil and Water Conservation in Subsaharan Africa, Rome, 1992.

*Board of the Society of African Earth Scientists: Dr Enas Ahmed (Egypt), Osmin Callis (Secretary - Guyana/Nigeria), Mathada Humphrey (South Africa), Ndivhuwo Cecilia Mukosi (South Africa), Dr Chukwunyere Kamalu (Chair - Nigeria).

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