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Friday, October 28, 2011

Food Security; African farmers need to increase fertilizer use

Africa is facing persistently high food prices and low farm yields, which are weakening its food security and putting the region’s fragile stability and economic growth at risk, according to a group of leading international scientists meeting in Kigali this week.

There is also a polarized debate over the use of organic and inorganic practices to boost farm yields, which is slowing widespread farmer adoption of approaches that could radically transform Africa’s food security situation.

“The ideological divide over approaches to farm production are a distraction from the actions needed to address food security now and ensure it in the future,” said Nteranya Sanginga, director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Over 200 leading African and international scientists met at the first conference of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture Based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) in Kigali, Rwanda, this week.

Participants identified several practical solutions that would help move the region towards food security like scaling up farmer adoption of new technologies that improve degraded soils through more efficient use of inorganic fertilizers, new higher-yielding varieties of staple crops that improve nutrition, and mixed farming and intercropping approaches for crops like banana, coffee, and grain legumes.

“For many, fertilizer is a dirty word,” said Bernard Vanlauwe, acting director of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility research area at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “We have to focus on approaches that improve livelihoods.”

Fertilizer use in Africa is by far the lowest in the world. On average, African farmers apply about 9 kg per hectare of fertilizer compared to 86 kg per hectare in Latin America and 142 kg per hectare in Southeast Asia.

“African agriculture is already organic. It’s not working,” said Sanginga. “We need to focus on practical things that help, not ideology.”

Agricultural researchers have found ways to dramatically reduce fertilizer use – while boosting crop yields. These include site-specific recommendations, partly based on detailed satellite images of African soils, and a technique known as micro-dosing, which involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer during a crop’s growing period.

New research by CIALCA scientists has shown that intercropping banana and coffee can benefit both the environment and farmers’ incomes compared to growing each crop separately.

Banana—a food staple for millions across the region—provides a shaded canopy for coffee plants, which results in higher yields, less soil erosion, and more money for the farmers. Scientists also noted that this approach is ‘climate smart’ because the shade could buffer heat-sensitive coffee crops against the predicted impacts of climate change.

Improved climbing bean varieties being grown by thousands of farmers in the region have been particularly well-received, producing three times the yield of ordinary bush beans.

On tightly packed, small farms, the new bean varieties make valuable use of limited space by growing upwards instead of sprawling outwards. They also improve soil fertility through nitrogen fixation, and when grown in rotation with maize – another crucial African staple - maize yields have increased substantially, and the need for fertilizer reduced.

“It does not have to be a choice between organic or inorganic; both approaches can work well together at different stages in agricultural development,” said Vanlauwe.

Climate change, rapid population growth, and intense land pressure are major challenges for Africa but it is high time it focused on practical, evidence-based solutions that will forever end the cycle of hunger, poverty and civil conflict,” said Sanginga.

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