Published by: Juliet Braslow and Rolf Sommer

“Let’s be frank: we are making too little progress on protecting soils in sub-Saharan Africa from physical or chemical degradation!”

That’s how this new soil-focused special issue is framed by the editors.

Soils provide the fundamental basis for food production. They store water, deliver nutrients to crops, capture carbon, nurture biodiversity and provide clean drinking water. This issue provides in-depth research on the impact of best-bet management practices on soil biological functions, soil fertility and crop productivity.

It presents soil management options which preserve the soil’s health, while allowing farmers to intensify their production and profits. It also examines how some soil management techniques may lead to increased release of potent greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide, leaked into the atmosphere.

In this new study titled: “African Eco-Efficient Solutions to Food Insecurity and Climate Change in Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems,” CIAT scientists pave the way towards change.

“We need more site-specific information, clear plans and well-funded action to protect Africa’s soils,” say authors, outlining their reasons for embarking on the issue.

Laying the foundations

First accounts of the pressing needs to conserve soils date back to British African colonial times. Fast-forward 80 years, and we’re still trying to tackle the same issues: Sub-Saharan Africa continues to face widespread soil degradation and nutrient mining.

This leads to low soil and water productivity, and subsequent low yields affecting the livelihoods of African farming communities. Climate change impacts will only add to and complicate the dilemma.

“Fast-forward 80 years, and we’re still trying to tackle the same issues: Sub-Saharan Africa continues to face widespread soil degradation and nutrient mining.”

Rolf Sommer

Soil scientist and co-editor

Field to landscape level research

In 2014, concerned scientists met at the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in South Korea for a session on African Eco-Efficient Solutions to Food Insecurity and Climate Change to exchange ideas about how soil scientists and experts can develop solutions to food production constraints, climate change impacts, and soil and land degradation in Africa.

These deliberations laid the foundations of this special issue, which adds further, more recent research confronting Africa’s soil problems. The nine publications present results and recommendations based on research conducted on the ground and in farmers’ fields in Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Burundi and beyond.

The issue presents  field to landscape-level research, measures to improve productivity in an eco-efficient way –  narrowing crop yield gaps, while addressing soil fertility and nutrient constraints.

The papers address topics including the eco-efficiency of integrated soil fertility management; ecosystem services and solutions at landscape scale to address land degradation problems; reversing and mitigating land degradation through refocused investment by donors and governments – and adoption of site-specific, equity-sensitive strategies.

The goal of this special issue is to present African solutions to reverse land degradation across the continent, from landscape to plot, increasing sustainable intensification and making agriculture climate smart. These solutions reflect the three themes of CIAT’s soils research area.

“Hopefully these context-specific solutions and approaches will lead us to see less talk and more action to address food insecurity and climate change from the ground up when future generations look back 80 years from now,” say authors.

CIAT’s researchers identify the most promising practices within specific contexts.
The goal of special issue is to present solutions to reverse land degradation in Africa.
Check-dams are site-specific solutions, helping slow soil erosion in some areas.

Soil, climate change and why we need to act now

When it comes to “future-proofing” farming activities, these papers present options for mainstreaming soil health into efforts to make farming more resilient to the impacts of climate change. This entails assessing which agricultural practices preserve and rehabilitate the soil, while leaving a minimal climate footprint, and boosting harvests.

Papers in this issue – for example, examine the effects of cultivation on soil organic carbon in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania – outlining alarming land-use change in sub-Saharan Africa, which is adversely affecting ecosystem services provided by soil.

These impacts are greatly understudied, especially in biodiversity rich mountains in East Africa. In this and other papers, authors outline climate-responsive soil protection and rehabilitation management interventions which farmers can apply in their fields.

By listening to farmer’s perceptions, CIAT’s researchers identify the most promising practices within specific contexts. Many of the papers present data collected through biophysical soil assessments or through economic assessments – and outline options aimed at enabling decision-makers to prioritize their investments. And take a step closer towards saving our precious soil – before it’s too late.

Download our soils brief here.

Call to action:

  • These discussions and presentations outlined in this special issue provide updated research to confront soil degradation in Africa using tried and tested methods and tools.
  • The nine publications present recommendations based on research conducted on the ground and in farmers’ fields in Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Burundi and beyond – with important lessons for application in other countries.
  • The context-specific solutions and approaches in these papers aim to provide concrete steps towards food insecurity and climate change from the ground up.

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