Healthy soils are crucial for food security: Prof Tony Simons, Director General, ICRAF

Prof Tony Simons during the launch of the UN Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification. Image courtesy of

In support of the theme of the Rio+20 talks, the World Agroforestry Centre’s Director General, Professor Tony Simons said, “Food security is multidimensional and we can’t simply attack productivity aspects only.” He was speaking during a recent television interview on CNTV about the current and future impact climate change is expected to have on developing countries. He outlined how the most worrying and immediate climatic threats for rural farmers centre on diminishing water supply and increasing climatic temperatures. The role of the World Agroforestry Centre, suggests Prof Simons is to provide actionable knowledge that buffers the rural poor against these climatic stresses.

In recent times, there has been better cooperation between African governments and international research organizations in promoting the importance of soil monitoring. For example, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is providing scientific and advisory support to the Ethiopian Government on soil spectroscopy as part of the new Ethiopia Soil Information System.

Even so, the message of a document written six years ago still makes a poignant point today. The Saving Africa’s Soils: Science and Technology for Improved Soil Management in Africa paper points out that the continent’s degraded soils and the lack of investments in adequate soil management are undermining the ability of African farmers to increase crop yields and bring about an era of greater food security.

In Prof Simons’ opinion, three key factors combine to exacerbate soil fertility and food security. He said, “Greater inter-annual variability in rainfall and temperature…extreme events…and long term shifts such as shorter planting seasons.” Add on to these the worrying trends of frequent flooding and droughts and a clear recipe for disaster follows.

To address this impending disaster, “all stakeholders need to realize that poor nations and islands are victims of climate change,” suggested James Michel, president of Seychelles. “Rich countries should take more of the responsibility and make sure that small countries are given resources to be able to adapt while the world works towards frameworks to reduce emissions.

It is a point supported by the South African president, Jacob Zuma who during the African Summit on Sustainability said, “For most people in the developing world, especially Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death.”

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report (IPCC TAR) also pointed out that, “When comparing the greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the typical African country with the typical European country, the Europeans emit roughly 50-100 times more, while the Americans emit 100-200 times more.” Although African countries emit much less greenhouse gases, the Report warns that Africa remains very vulnerable to climate change given its low capacity to respond and adapt.

To increase the capacity of rural dwellers to adapt to climate induced pressures, President Michel stressed that the key is to focus on citizens first and foremost. “Once you put people at the centre of development, then you have to develop infrastructure, hospitals and schools and this adds to proper functioning of society,” he concluded.

Prof Simons agreed, noting that the rural poor must first be looked after because their very survival depends on how much food they can grow to feed themselves. That is why to be food secure, he says food security in developing countries especially in Africa should be multidimensional with governments and urban consumers having different needs to smallholder producers.

Tony suggests one excellent buffer is to initiate better land use management in rural settings. He was adamant that better land use management systems and infrastructure help farmers and pastoralists become resilient. “An example of land use management could be the building of an abattoir in northern Kenya so that cattle can be slaughtered and sold as meat rather than simply perishing due to lack of water or fodder during a drought.”

Farmer Steven of Malawi harvesting potatoes in his farm. Image by Steve Mann, World Agroforestry Centre

Using fertilizer trees and taking advantage of soil microbes, Prof Simons suggested that in some regions, around 200 kg per hectare per year of organic fertilizer has been produced for free. When compared to the costly option of subsidising inorganic fertilizer in Africa that achieves a sparse application rate of only 8 kg per hectare per year, representing only 10% of Europe’s input and around 5% the application rate of China, Prof Simons suggests more should be done to upscale agroforestry practices. The great thing about the trees claims Simons, is that they not only boost biomass but also water retention.

“If our soils can be like a sponges rather than table tops… then they can buffer farmers against water issues associated with climate change,” he iterated. He lamented that apart from fertile soils, other elements such as access to markets, technology and opportunities, knowledge and policy must converge before sustainable food security can be achieved.

“Farmer institutions need to gather and aggregate their members to be able to influence the policy their governments implement such as land tenure policies which influence their ability to profit from the land.”

The Director General urges African governments to play a key role in guaranteeing food security by making use of evidence-based knowledge. “African Governments need to be aware of the scientific knowledge that exists and they also need to understand them. They need to know how the knowledge applies to their region in terms of national priorities.”

Commenting on the progress the Centre has made since the early 1980s, the Director said “The time for proofs of concepts is long gone and now we need to focus on proof of application…we need to boldly embrace how to affect 100 million farmers to change their farming practices to be climate smart.”

Click here to watch the CNTV interview.

Click for more information on soil-related research.'

Christopher Mesiku

Chris Mesiku is a science communicator volunteering at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. In the last 5 years, he has worked as a communicator for various scientific institutions. He holds a Bachelor of Science, Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (ANU) and a Masters in Philosophy of Science (UQ).

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