Stalemate over organic farming slows progress in effort to combat food insecurity in Central Africa

October 28, 2011

The polarized debate over the use of organic and inorganic practices to boost farm yields is slowing action and widespread farmer adoption of approaches that could radically transform Africa's food security situation, according to a group of leading international scientists meeting in Kigali this week.

"The ideological divide over approaches to farm production are a distraction from the actions needed to address now and ensure it in the future," said Nteranya Sanginga, director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). "Persistently high and low farm yields are weakening Central Africa's food security and putting the region's fragile stability and economic growth at risk."

"Climate change, rapid population growth, and intense land pressure are major challenges for the region. It's time to focus on practical, evidence-based solutions that will forever end the cycle of hunger, poverty and ," he added.

Over 200 leading African and met at the first conference of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture Based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) in Kigali, Rwanda, this week. Participants identified several practical solutions that would help move the region towards a food security. These include scaling up farmer adoption of new technologies that improve degraded soils through more efficient use of inorganic fertilizers, new higher-yielding varieties of staple crops that improve nutrition, and mixed farming and intercropping approaches for crops like banana, coffee, and grain legumes.

"For many, fertilizer is a dirty word," said Bernard Vanlauwe, acting director of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility research area at the International Center for (CIAT). "We have to focus on approaches that improve livelihoods."

"It does not have to be a choice between organic or inorganic; both approaches can work well together at different stages in agricultural development," said Vanlauwe.

Participants at the CIALCA conference reached consensus that agricultural research and development efforts should focus on the middle ground, increasingly referred to as sustainable intensification, which combines the most effective and sustainable approaches to improving farm yields.

"Sustainable Intensification is the best way to tackle rural poverty and hunger in regions with huge land and population pressures," said Vanlauwe.

Fertilizer use in Africa is by far the lowest in the world. On average, African farmers apply about 9 kg per hectare of fertilizer compared to 86 kg per hectare in Latin America and 142 kg per hectare in Southeast Asia.

"African agriculture is already organic. It's not working," said Sanginga. "We need to focus on practical things that help, not ideology."

Agricultural researchers have found ways to dramatically reduce fertilizer use – while boosting crop yields. These include site-specific recommendations, partly based on detailed satellite images of African soils, and a technique known as micro-dosing, which involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer during a crop's growing period.

New research by CIALCA scientists has shown that intercropping banana and coffee can benefit both the environment and farmers' incomes compared to growing each crop separately. Banana -- a food staple for millions across the region -- provides a shaded canopy for coffee plants, which results in higher yields, less soil erosion, and more money for the farmers. Scientists also noted that this approach is 'climate smart' because the shade could buffer heat-sensitive coffee crops against the predicted impacts of .

Improved climbing bean varieties being grown by thousands of farmers in the region have been particularly well-received, producing three times the yield of ordinary bush beans. On tightly-packed, small farms, the new bean varieties make valuable use of limited space by growing upwards instead of sprawling outwards. They also improve soil fertility through nitrogen fixation, and when grown in rotation with maize – another crucial African staple - maize yields have increased substantially, and the need for fertilizer reduced.

At the close of the CIALCA conference today, participants will recommend the priority actions for agricultural research and development efforts in . For outcomes and updates, please visit http://CIALCAconference.org.

Explore further: New digital map of Africa's depleted soils to offer insights critical for boosting food production

Related Stories

Fertilizers may not help poorest African farmers

September 24, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers have linked poverty in sub-Saharan Africa with poor soil health, but two new Cornell studies find that the recommended practice of applying more fertilizer may not help the poorest farmers.

Scientists find that evergreen agriculture boosts crop yields

November 2, 2010

A unique acacia known as a "fertilizer tree" has typically led to a doubling or tripling of maize yields in smallholder agriculture in Zambia and Malawi, according to evidence presented at a conference in the Hague today. ...

Recommended for you

New study sheds light on end of Snowball Earth period

August 24, 2015

The second ice age during the Cryogenian period was not followed by the sudden and chaotic melting-back of the ice as previously thought, but ended with regular advances and retreats of the ice, according to research published ...

Earth's mineralogy unique in the cosmos

August 26, 2015

New research from a team led by Carnegie's Robert Hazen predicts that Earth has more than 1,500 undiscovered minerals and that the exact mineral diversity of our planet is unique and could not be duplicated anywhere in the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.