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2014 marked an eventful year in agriculture, and as the year drew to a close, 2 key themes emerged across African agricultural policy dialogue; smallholder agriculture and climate variability and change in Sub-Saharan Africa. 2015 has begun on a note that in a way, follows along the same trajectory, and this year, thematic policy focus is on Soils.

African Soil Atlas - Source: The European Soil Portal

African Soil Atlas – Source: The European Soil Portal

Declared as the International Year of Soils by the 68th United Nations General Assembly, 2015 is poised to take last year’s focus on smallholder agriculture and climate change a step further with the help of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); which has been tasked to implement the International Year of Soils within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership, and in collaboration with country governments and the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Soils form the most basic foundation of all life as we know it to exist. Occurring in varying states, and possessing innumerable qualities and properties, soils directly influence the quality and quantity of food available on our planet. It goes therefore, without saying that the health and fertility of soils is essential for the maintenance of food security, livelihoods and sustainable ecosystems.

Expected Soil Function Beyond 2012: FAO.ORG

Expected Soil Function Beyond 2012: FAO.ORG

Despite its undeniable contribution to human welfare, soils have long been neglected across policy spheres, and today exist in an untenable state of degradation, and with nearly one-third of the earth’s land characterized by eroded topsoil and fast depleting nutrients, significant environmental, nutritional and socio-economic consequences loom large accross the horizon.

MDG : Parched soil in the Greater Upper Nile region of north-eastern South Sudan

MDG : Parched soil in the Greater Upper Nile region of north-eastern South Sudan

In Africa, the impacts of soil degradation are alarming. According to the Montpellier Panel Report, 65% of arable land, 30% of grazing land and 20% of forests are damaged, an estimated 180 million people are affected and estimated economic loss from current levels of degradation stand at $68 billion per year.

According to the chair of the Montpellier Panel; Professor Sir Gordon Conway, Africa’s resource-poor smallholder famers, disproportionately carry the burden of the continent’s damaged soils. Constrained by fragile land tenure and limited access to credit resources, farmers forego essential land management practices in favor of cheaper, less labor-intensive uses of resources, losing out on long-term gains in soil health, fertility, and productivity, with significant negative environmental externalities.

Global warming in the region also has significant impact on soil. According to the “Climate Change and Security in Africa” report, the continent is expected to see a rise in average temperature that exceeds the global average. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease throughout most of the region, with a possible exception of eastern Africa.

“Less rain will have serious implications for sub-Saharan agriculture, 75 percent of which is rain-fed. Average predicated production losses by 2050 for African crops are: maize 22 percent, sorghum 17 percent, millet 17 percent, groundnut 18 percent, and cassava 8 percent.” With lower yields generally resulting in increased land use, native forests and vegetation will have to make way for increased agricultural land which in turn results in even greater levels of land degradation; perpetrating a vicious cycle that can only be brough to a halt by deliberate, strategic policy action.


With this goal in mind, the Montpellier Panel came up with a number of key proposals aimed at stemming the tide of soil degradation, most significant among these include;

  • Strengthen political support for sustainable land management practices amongst smallholder farmers;
  • Increase financial support for investment in land and soil management;
  • Improve transparency for land and soil management contributions by donors and governments, and implement monitoring programs to track investment performance;
  • Quantify the costs of land degradation and the benefits derived from sustainable land management to reinforce attention to the challenges and benefits;
  • Plug holes in soil data by harnessing the power of Big Data to produce updated, real-time information on soil types, locations, qualities and degradation using remote sensing systems and networks of local weather information and citizen science;
  • Provide farmers with incentives such as redeemable carbon credits, as a way of encouraging adaptation of climate change mitigation practices;
  • Build on the vast base of knowledge on soil science and land degradation in Africa;
  • Strengthen collaboration with soil research centers in Africa and across the globe as a way of building soil science capacity;
  • Embrace integrated soil management (ISM), by incorporating organic farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approached and selective targeted use of inputs in everyday farming activity;
  • Foster climate smart soil research aimed at providing farmers with knowledge and resources on how ISM can help them adapt to the adverse effects of climate change and reduce GHG emissions.

The truth is that really, when it comes to soil preservation, we are all farmers, each with an equal share of the responsibility to preserve the livelihoods and birthright so generously given to us, and which we so often take for granted. Check out the links below for more information, and maybe try to figure out how in your own way, you can help preserve this bad old world of ours for those coming after us, and for the foreseeable future.

Sharifa Juma digs terraces to stop soil erosion  Lushoto, Tanzania. Credit: Georgina Smith / CIAT

Sharifa Juma digs terraces to stop soil erosion in Lushoto, Tanzania. Credit: Georgina Smith / CIAT


United Nations

Agriculture for Impact – No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring and Enhancing Africa’s Soils. A Montpellier Panel Report, December 2014.

“Climate Change and Security in Africa”

All Africa