Farmers key in effort to avert African 2015 famine

Chris Mesiku

In a recent presentation at the World Agroforestry Centre, renowned agronomist Roland Bunch put forward a case for an imminent widespread African famine by 2015 if steps are not taken to mitigate it. His predictions are based on soil degradation trends from the perspective of recent surveys he conducted with populations of farmers from Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Mali and Niger. The results of his survey are published in the latest WorldWatch Institute's '2011 State of the World' report.

Most smallholder farmers across Africa are very much aware of the poor fertility of their soils, claimed Mr Bunch, and that this knowledge can make farmers react in ways that exacerbate the onset of famine or it can be used to encourage farmer-driven mitigation solutions. His proposal was to encourage farmers to participate in Evergreen agriculture by intercropping nitrogen-fixing plants or trees with subsistence crops.

Underpinning his case is that African soils across the subhumid and semiarid lowlands not only have poor fertility, but also that soil fertility is rapidly deteriorating. Now more than ever is the time to disseminate technologies to help recovery efforts because most smallholder farmers have actually realised the major issue and understand the risk to their livelihoods.

In some of the worst-affected parts of Africa, the soil produces so little that some smallholders are forced to depend on food aid explained Mr Bunch. Since they cannot use food aid to generate income, this move has a profound impact on the livelihoods of farmers.

Traditionally, if a piece of land becomes unproductive, farmers and villages moved and resettled elsewhere. This would still be a viable option if as Bunch said; there were lands to resettle on. Due to several other factors, it is increasingly difficult for villagers to resettle on new lands. This brings the issue of land tenure to the fore as well as acting as a driver of further soil degradation. Farmers are forced to till land without giving adequate time for it to regenerate. Fallow times have been reduced substantially from 10-15 years to less than 3 years in many cases.

Some farms have had to reduce their livestock by selling or killing them because of unaffordable feed costs. This directly impacts soil fertility because there is no longer enough manure to fertilize an average size farm. Mr Bunch said farmers typically have less than 5 out of the ideal 15 head of cattle per household.

The CGIAR usually concentrates on the level of phosphur and potassium to monitor soil health, he said. He was more interested in emphasising that organic matter has a bigger role to play. He noted that as the rate of depletion of soil organic matter increases, soil fertility decreases very quickly. "My that even though the famine will become very serious by 2015, it will get worse and worse until at least 2018 or 2020” Mr Bunch continued, “By then a few farmers will have invented aspects of Evergreen agriculture themselves, and organizations like the World Agroforestry Centre will have made a fair amount of progress, but far more important, food aid and subsidized fertilizer will have taken care of many of the people who otherwise might have died.”

Mr Bunch said that even though the situation is dire, for some time, the situation will be masked by farmers having to farm more land to maintain the same level of productivity. Within a few years, this option will have run out and the consequences of soil infertility will be suddenly pronounced.

One practical solution would be to make fertilizer freely available to as many farmers as possible. The CGIAR for example is lobbying for subsidized input costs. Mr Bunch thought the idea of subsidising fertilizer costs for farmers may backfire in time since fertilizing does not add organic matter into the soils. Also cheap fertilizer encourages bad farming practises such as complacency towards the use of organic fertilizers.

Farmers must grow trees and plants that produce many leaves that drop and cover the land, argued Bunch. "Since there is no time for fallowing, growing fertilising trees and plants simultaneously with crops is the best solution," he added. When trees are planted with crops, the trees offer dispersed shade. Dispersed shade systems have been shown to increase yields by up to 50%. Bunch suggested that after 5 years of cover cropping, farmers should adopt zero-tilling farming methods to maintain soil fertility.

There is the realisation that, due to other contributing factors, farmers will unfortunately always need some amount of chemical fertilizers during adoption of cover crop systems in Evergreen agriculture. In particular, when new crop varieties are introduced to a new environment, sometimes inorganic fertilizers are needed to catalyse its transition into the new environment. Evergreen agriculture is also admittedly knowledge intensive and time consuming to disseminate. However, “Evergreen systems need not be too awfully knowledge-intensive." said Mr Bunch. "Part of our job in scaling up has to be to understand the ecological domains in which each practice or species works best, and then introduce one or two simple practices or species in each domain" he added.

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