On Africa’s farms, history doesn’t have to repeat itself

29 October, 2013 by (comments)

By Rolf Sommer

This post is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) blog month-long focus on Restoring soils and landscapes. Rolf Sommer is participating in Global Soil Week October 27-31, 2013.

For farmers in North America, Europe and parts of Asia, growing enough food has never been a problem thanks to a centuries-old practice that leads to high yields: the application of chemical fertiliser to soil.  It has become increasingly obvious, however, that this soil-booster—a US$100 billion dollar industry that dates back to the 19th century—is seriously damaging to the environment. Nitrate and other chemicals that comprise fertiliser have polluted streams and lakes and seeped into drinking water supplies, killing wildlife and threatening human health.


Why, then, are soil scientists around the world, many of whom are gathered in Berlin this week for Global Soils Week, lobbying for a rapid increase in the use of chemical fertilisers in sub-Saharan Africa. Wouldn’t that mean repeating the mistakes of the developed world?

Not necessarily. Not all soil is created equal—and in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s in bad shape.  Most soils in the tropical region aren’t as fertile as soils in the temperate north because they are millions of years old and over time nutrients have been leached. Without  the addition of fertiliser, organic or inorganic, these soils can’t achieve the potency necessary to feed the population—expected to quadruple by the end of the century— that relies on these lands for their food.

Read the full post on the Global Soil Week blog.


Author: Rolf Sommer, Senior Scientist for Soil Health and Climate Change at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

Related posts: Getting policies right for investment in African agriculture: fertilizer subsidies on the comeback? by Ademola Braimoh

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