Editorial: They brought in plows?

When a consortium of Canadian non-government organizations funded by the Canadian government arrived in the Benishangul-Gumuz state in Western Ethiopia five years ago, their primary goal was to help smallholder farmers boost productivity and food security.

They came in with “modern” farming methods. In this context, that meant oxen and plows, showing farmers how to till their land and plant their crops in rows.

Given Prairie history, you would think Canadians would know better. Although to be fair, these organizations were working with local government officials to deliver the program.

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According to project reports, 74 per cent of the land in this state is considered cultivable and yet 86 per cent of the population is short of food at certain times of the year. It’s a region that is likely to see an influx of people in coming decades, given its relatively low population and intense population pressures elsewhere in the country.

Farmers in that region traditionally burned off the savannah grasses and roughed up the soil surface before broadcasting their seed.

As soon as they started tilling, their yields increased significantly — up to 75 per cent for the staple maize — a kind of hallelujah achievement.

But those yield gains in some areas proved short lived. The topsoils were shallow and highly erodible. Yields began to drop within three years as the organic fertility was used up.

So conservation agriculture was introduced. While still in the demonstration stage, the CA plots are performing better than the tilled plots and traditional methods, which is encouraging. Hopefully, plans to scale up agriculture in this region are reconsidered with a view to using methods that keep the soil intact.

You don’t have to sift through the data to know Africa’s soils are in trouble. You can see it crossing the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia, where suspended soil particles tickle the throat and obscure the mountains on either side. Farmers there plow their land five times before planting. Crop residue is removed after harvest and roaming livestock clean up the stubble. Farther south, you see washed-out roads and creviced fields from water erosion.

In a report released last December, the Montpellier Panel, an elite group of EU and African scientists that analyzes issues in development, characterized two-thirds of the African continent’s soils as degraded. It produced a map that identifies the single biggest cause of soil loss as water erosion, followed by wind.

It’s not that the crisis has gone unnoticed by African governments and foreign donors. It’s just that their response has been, well, muddy.

There is a big push to increase the availability of fertilizer, including blends that can address the micronutrient deficiencies, with little recognition of the fact that many farmers can’t afford it or that the land may not respond for other reasons. The Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency noted in 2013 that investments in fertilizer have not resulted in commensurate yield increases.

Chemical deficiencies aside, all the fertilizer in the world won’t fix the biological breakdown that takes place in overworked, erosion-prone soils that are no longer capable of making full use of the water they receive.

While there are sustainable land-management programs, they operate separately from programs emphasizing productivity gains. Cohesion is sorely needed with a clear link drawn between soil health and productive capacity. It seems like a no-brainer, but are we in Canada any different?

The Montpellier Panel was critical of Africa’s continental agricultural strategy, the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program, and of international donors for not placing a high enough priority on soil health in their strategies to improve the continent’s food security.

“All donors must consider whether their efforts to reduce food insecurity and generate economic growth, particularly in rural areas, risk falling well beneath their potential if greater political attention and development resources are not channelled into land and resource management,” the panel says.

“There is an urgent need for donors to work with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to develop a clear and transparent process for monitoring aid to soil and land management,” it says.

The panel calls for an integrated soil management strategy that combines organic farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approaches and selective and targeted use of inputs such as fertilizer.

Canada has learned a lot of what it knows about sustainable soil management the hard way. But perhaps we have expertise that can help Africa avoid making the same mistakes.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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