An agro-ecological solution!?

Exaggerations, weak evidence, and ideology are undermining farmers and policymakers’ ability make sound decisions on how to best tackle sub-Saharan Africa’s on-going soil and food crises, said a leading soils expert at the CIALCA conference this morning.

Many academic references used in recent reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food include fertilizer use in their findings, yet he claims that organic approaches alone can double food production in Africa.

“There is no research on the ground in Africa or in academia to support these conclusions,” says Henk Breman from IFDC.

Researchers like Breman are concerned that prominent voices are using ideological arguments to score political points, while ignoring evidence showing that purely organic approach cannot meet Africa’s food needs.

“The idea that you can improve food production only with inorganic fertilizer required is a myth,” says Breman. “Who is against approaches that harm the environment and destroy natural resources? Who is against the protection of farmers and social cohesion?”

Many  advocating for purely organic approaches leave out the role of integrated soil fertility management practices—like intercropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes, applying small amounts of fertilizer in bottle caps, or agroforestry—in making fertilizer use more financially feasible and environmentally sustainable.

The “greening of Sahel” has received lots of global attention, but very little of the discussion has focused on increased fertilizer use by farmers in the region. Widespread adoption of micro-dosing by farmers helps optimize nutrient uptake by the crops in the field and reduces the need to clear more tree covered lands.

IFSM (integrated soil fertility management) is also more competitive, particularly against big agribusiness that many pro-organic proponents are clearly against, says Breman.

Bremen suggests a starting point might be thinking about ways to “optimize” the use of non-renewable inputs, instead just focusing so much on ways to “minimize” them.

“There is no sustainable agriculture without external inputs,” he says.

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