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World Soil Day 2017: Healthy soils key to ending global hunger

Tuesday, December 5 is World Soil Day, a day set aside by the United Nations; to acknowledge the importance of healthy soil and to advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. This World Soil Day, Canadian Foodgrains Bank is reflecting on the importance of continued attention to soil health as a means of ensuring global food security.

Healthy soil plays a key role in ending global hunger. Yet it’s something that’s rarely discussed outside of the agricultural world.

The ability to access fertile soil plays a key role in ensuring people can grow their own food, or grow food they can sell to earn an income.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization;; of the United Nations, 12 million hectares of fertile land are lost every year, due to things like urbanization, climate change, and erosion;;. At the same time, the quality of the topsoil we have left continues to degrade.

In Africa, the problem is especially pronounced.

Many soils in Africa are easily degraded when they are continuously cultivated. According to the International Journal of Soil Sustainability, almost one-third of crop land in sub-Saharan Africa is degraded due to pressure from growing populations, inadequate environmental management, and a lack of nutrient replenishment. That figure rises to almost half in areas of high agricultural activity like the highlands of Ethiopia.

All of this has significant repercussions for the work of ending hunger.

Most of the people in the world who experience hunger are small-scale farmers, many of them in Africa.

“You can’t talk about an end to global hunger without addressing the issue of soil fertility,” says Theresa Rempel Mulaire, who manages Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa for Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Through the program, which is supported by a $14 million matching grant from the Government of Canada, the Foodgrains Bank is supporting 50,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya in improving the quality of their soil. The overall aim of the program is to ensure families no longer experience hunger.

Through trainings, extension workers, and ongoing farmer-to-farmer support, farmers in those countries are learning to implement conservation agriculture techniques. Conservation agriculture is a farming approach that emphasizes minimal soil disturbance, crop rotations, mulching and cover crops in order to improve soil health and fertility and increase production.

“Our goal is to move from conservation agriculture being done on a project-by-project basis to a set of practices that are natural and normal for African farmers to use in their day-to-day lives,” says Rempel Mulaire.

One of the biggest successes Rempel Mulaire’s team has seen is interest in the program from high-ranking officials from within Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Initially, Foodgrains Bank staff members were concerned that government extension workers in that country might not be interested in learning about conservation agriculture techniques, and might even counsel Ethiopian farmers against implementing them.

“Conservation agriculture techniques differ from the conventional farming systems that people have been using to grow food for generations,” says Mulaire. “Encouraging people, particularly government officials expected to adhere to a certain curriculum, is hard.”

The reaction from Ethiopian officials was a welcome surprise, though.

After being presented with policy information and background, the Ministry expressed interest in including conservation agriculture principles in their official soil health manuals.
Before that though, they wanted to see for themselves what conservation agriculture projects looked like on the ground, and speak to farmers themselves.

At the end of November, staff from Ethiopian partners managing the conservation agriculture projects on behalf of the Foodgrains Bank took 11 officials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture to three different regions of Ethiopia where the projects are being implemented.

The group included both officials in favour of conservation agriculture, and those who were skeptical.

“From the beginning, the team from the Ministry was very inquisitive,” says Frew Beriso, who provides technical support to the program. “They asked a lot of questions of the farmers and the partner staff,” he says.

“By halfway through the visit, it seemed like most of them were more than satisfied,” he adds. “I don’t think they expected to see such a noticeable difference between conservation agriculture and conventional farming systems.”

“The lead team member from the agriculture extension team told me one of the Ministry’s main concerns was around yield. But seeing the projects in person really solidified things for them. They no longer have doubts about the yield potential of conservation agriculture.”

“The project visit and subsequent inclusion of conservation agriculture techniques into official government curriculum are significant,” says Rempel Mulaire.

“It makes the changes we are working on more sustainable,” she says.

World Soil Day is just once a year, but the significance of healthy soils touches each of us every day. To learn more about soil health, visit the Food and Agricultural Organization;; of the United Nations.