1st Afro-Mediterranean Soils Conference: “Constraints and Potentialities for Durable Management”
165 participants from 18 countries met in Marrakesh from 18-19 December 2015 to discuss the critical condition of soils, especially in Africa. The event was organized by the Fondation OCP and INRA Morocco (National Institute for of Agricultural Research) in partnership with FAO. The final communiqué highlights the crucial role soils play for the social and economic security of the African people, especially those who are dependent on small-scale agriculture.
While the growth rate of the world population averages 34% worldwide, it reaches up to 120% in some African areas. At the same time yields are reduced by an average of -8%, reaching alarming extremes of up to -40% in some areas. More than 50% of the land area is degraded, mainly due to water and wind erosion, but also nutrient losses, salinization and soil organic matter losses on agricultural land are important causes.
Even if these conditions were not considered, the majority of African soil would be difficult to manage due to its natural conditions: low nutrient storage capacity and low nutrient levels. Most of sub-Saharan Africa has naturally acidic soils. Soil organic matter, the most important mediator to supply nutrients to crop roots, often has naturally low concentrations. In fact, the best soils are often found in mountains, which are physically difficult for cropping.
More information about the condition of soils in Africa can be found in the report about the Status of the World Soil Resources by the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils of the Global Soil Partnership, launched on the 2015 World Soil Day.
Lack of data and updated information about soils in Africa is alarming
Only 8% of the African land area is suitable for agriculture, probably with a potential to increase if degraded lands were restored. However, reliable data about soil degradation, soil fertility and its potential improvement through sustainable soil management are lacking. Knowledge is also lacking about the carbon sequestration potential of African soils.
Finding solutions to the challenges
Various inventories and scientific studies are being conducted to explore the current yield gaps, which refers to the mismatch between potential and actual yields.
In addition, large-scale soil programmes are being carried out with specific purposes related to the closing of the yield gap through decision support for efficient fertilization. In Morocco, the Fertimap project covers 6.8 Mio ha cropland with some 26 000 soil samples taken. The results will be made available through a web-based soil information system offering decision support to farmers. Similarly, in Ethiopia, EthioSIS covers almost the entire country with some 53 000 sampling points. 6 000 extension specialists ensure that the information collected is being shared with farmers.
What mechanisms are in place?
South-south cooperation is seen as an important means to utilize existing resources available and to transfer knowledge and capacity to areas where it is still lacking. Also, the regional soil partnerships for North Africa and the Near East as well as for Sub-Saharan Africa, which are regional bodies of the Global Soil Partnership, will intensify cooperation within the African region. A deepening of regional knowledge exchange is also pursued by the African Soil Science Society: there, regional networks were founded in order to better address and advice on the challenges regarding sustainable soil management and soil restauration.
Soils and climate change
Recently, the international community has begun to discuss agriculture and climate change, especially in the context of adaptation and mitigation. During COP21 in Paris, soils and sustainable soil management received attention through the 4per1000 initiative, which was also included into the Lima-Paris Action Agenda. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 explicitly call for strengthening the link between adaptation and mitigation. This agreement will have strong implications for all international agenda concerned with agricultural activities and the storage of carbon in biomass and soils.
Morrocco will be hosting the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Given the alarming situation of Africa’s most endangered natural resources – water and soils – this will provide the opportunity to halter the continued degradation of these resources, to improve information about their condition, and to manage them sustainably.