Soil erosion threatens food security

The wealth of Africa depends on its ability to conserve and manage its soils.

Soil, the most important resource that African states have, is the basis for crop production as about 99 per cent of food is produced from it.

It sustains not only the Africa’s agricultural and livestock food production, wood for fuel production, but also filters water so that people and animals can drink it and fish can live in it.

People also use soil for construction, meaning that it sustains homes and infrastructure.

The Montpellier Panel December 2014 report titled “No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring and Enhancing Africa’s Soils” says soil is a precious resource.

“Soils are the essence of life, sustaining humans, plants and animals for present and future generations.

“As the source of the food we eat and home and habitat for much of the planet’s flora and fauna, soil is a precious resource,” noted the report.

The Montpellier report added: “Soils’ varying properties, diverse qualities and characteristics directly influence the quality and amount of food that farmers grow.

“In effect, healthy and fertile soils are fundamental in the effort to reduce food insecurity, create viable rural livelihoods and sustainably manage ecosystems.”

Soil is a crucial aspect of African economies yet many Africans are forgetting this. Undervalued, soils have become politically and physically neglected, triggering soil erosion – a scourge that is threatening food security and stalling socio-economic transformation.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the voice for the environment in the United Nations system, says that due to neglect, soil erosion is extensive in many parts of Africa and is causing increased rates of siltation of water sources – rivers and dams.

“In Africa, soil erosion has reduced the continent’s grain harvest by 8 million tonnes, or roughly 8 per cent. This is projected to double to 16 million tonnes by 2020 if soil erosion is not reduced.

“Soil erosion reduces the productivity of land, requiring farmers to apply more and more fertilizers and other chemicals that help check falling productivity,” added the UNEP.

The United Nations agrees and estimates that nearly a third of the world’s soil is eroded and in Africa, that figure is closer to two-thirds.

“In Africa, the issue of soil erosion as well as soil fertility decline is deeply complex with intertwining and cyclical causes – poverty, inadequate farming techniques, poor inherent soil qualities to population pressure, to insecure land tenure and climate change, amongst other factors.

“If these issues are not addressed, the cycle of poor land management will result in higher barriers to food security, agricultural development for smallholder farmers as well as the wider economic growth for Africa,” explained the UN.

Harare-based agricultural expert, Ronald Chimunda, also said soil erosion becomes a serious problem when human activity causes it to occur much faster than under natural conditions.

Chimunda added that soil erosion is one of the most serious environmental, social and economic issues affecting Africa and its citizenry.

“Humans obtain most of their food from the land. As such, soil erosion is fast becoming a curse that is set to ravage countries in Africa in terms of food security,” he said, pointing out that more people are affected by soil erosion and the economic loss is enormous.

The Montpellier report explains that: “In Africa, an estimated 180 million people are affected by soil erosion, while the economic loss due to land degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year.”

Also a recent study warned that global soil erosion has reached levels that will endanger humanity’s ability to feed itself if nothing is done to lower it.

The review, titled “Soil and human security in the 21st century” published in Science on the 7th of May, noted that soils are being lost faster than they are being naturally produced in many parts of the world.

The World Health Organisation – a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) that is concerned with international public health, noted that achieving future food security for all people depends on conserving fertile soils, water, energy and biological resources.

African countries must carefully manage these vital resources to ensure the effective protection of agricultural and natural ecosystems.

Rattan Lal, a soil scientist, urges African countries to promote systems such as traditional farming practices to reduce soil erosion.

“In traditional farming systems, food production can be increased by using various techniques to reduce soil erosion. For example, farmers can preserve their soils using agroforestry and by covering it with crop residues,” he said.

Lal also urged African farmers to strike the right balance between adequate and affordable nutrient management and minimising environmental impacts.

He said farmers need to embrace affordable and practical resolutions to protect their soils as well as to achieve a 70 per cent or more increase in food production at least by 2050.

“For farmers to effectively adopt practical solutions, they need support from governments and other development partners.

“Donors and governments must, therefore, commit resources dedicated to sustainable land and soil management practices.

“Resources for more research must also be mobilised, while institutions and knowledge to address land degradation must be strengthened,” he said.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a nature conservation group, also noted that since soil is the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth, financial incentives are needed.

“Financial incentives encourage investment in soil preservation measures like terracing of steep hillsides or the reforestation of these surfaces. Private and Publics Partnerships are, thus, crucial if the continent is to stop soil erosion and improve soil quality,” affirmed the WWF.

The WWF added that governments, scientists, environmentalists, members of the public and farmers must embrace integrated soil management to reinstate, preserve and enhance soils.

“A combination of remedies is needed to restore, conserve and enhance soils. Integrated Soil Management must become the cornerstone of sustainable land management in the 21st century, integrating organic farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approaches and selective and targeted use of inputs,” explained the WWF.

The Montpellier report also urged African countries to build soil science capacity in the continent.

“There is a lack of soil science capacity in Africa.

“This capacity needs to be enhanced by strengthening soil research centres in Africa and collaboration with European and other international scientists and research centres,” noted the report.

Most people in Africa rely on soil to survive.

Policy decision makers must, therefore, strengthen political support for sustainable land management.

Along with food, water and energy security, sustainable land management should be a focus area within the post-2015 global development agenda that commits and builds on the Rio+20 target of “Zero Net Land Degradation.”

June 2015
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