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July 27, 2008

Fertilizer no substitute for good soil management

by Laura Starita

The current food crisis has a number of causes, but most agree that it will end only if high-yielding regions maintain and expand their crop production, and food-poor regions benefit from agriculture investments.

A Financial Times article on soil degradation suggests, however, that neither is a given. The world’s soil is at risk. Even in highly fertile, well-managed areas such as the Midwestern United States, farmers are losing soil quality to erosion, grazing, overuse and other factors. The problem is much worse in parts of the world, particularly southern Africa, where the soil structure is too loose to hold water, and possesses a chemical profile antagonistic to nutrient availability.

One of the most useful and non-obvious points made in the piece was that simply providing fertilizer to “African” farmers—a popular intervention in aid circles—will not in most cases solve the problem of soil quality, because the structure of “African” soils cannot absorb it. In practice, what that means is that some regions of the continent, mainly in Sudan and Ethiopia, but also South Africa, Angola and other countries, have highly acidic soils rich in iron and aluminum, which collectively create an environment in which phosphorus compounds bind into molecules with the iron and aluminum and become unavailable to plants. Providing fertilizers in these environments will not only do little to improve productivity, it will potentially increase soil salinity while increasing chemical runoff which pollutes water sources.

It is important to note that despite the impression given by the FT piece this is not true in all areas of the continent. Parts of Kenya, such as the Great Rift Valley, as well as areas of West Africa beyond the Sahel have highly fertile soils; the Central African region spanning much of the DRC also has rain forest-type soils which are good for certain tropical crops such as cocao and rubber. A soil map of Africa published ten years ago by the FAO provides a useful visual.

Absent an obvious and inexpensive way to improve soil fertility, then, where should investors turn? Another point made in the FT is that some places in Africa and around the world lack land title laws, or other provisions to ensure that a farmer is recognized as the legal holder or leaser of a plot. This lack of legal guarantee decreases farmer motivation for acting as responsible stewards of the lands they farm and graze, since they don’t own them and have no guarantee that they will benefit from conserving soil fertility for the future. The collapse of agricultural productivity after farm collectivization in many communist countries shows the impact of uncertain land titles.

It would be naive to suggest that title laws can change overnight, especially since economists and aid workers have been advocating for just those types of changes since economist Hernando de Soto wrote The Mystery of Capital nearly ten years ago. But there may be “test case” environments emerging now where researchers and philanthropic investors can experiment to see in practice whether stable ownership or resident status can positively impact both production and land stewardship.

Just this week, the Cuban government announced its intention to allow private farmers renewable 10 year leases on 99 acres of government land as part of an effort to increase domestic food production. The land is currently unused because—surprise, surprise—under the Castro regime, farmers’ lost private title to land and progressively reduced the amount of land they farmed. Of course, another opportunity for philanthropic investors may be in providing agricultural extension services to Cuban farmers providing them with the tools and knowledge to maintain soil fertility on their new plots.

Philanthropy Action

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