WINNIPEG — World Soil Day fell on Dec. 5 this year. It is 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 year the Canadian Foodgrains Bank reflected 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 is rarely discussed outside the world of agriculture. The ability to access fertile soil is critical to ensuring that people can grow their own food, or grow food they can sell to earn an income.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 12 million hectares of fertile land are lost every year owing to such phenomena as urbanization, climate change, and erosion. At the same time, the quality of the topsoil that’s left continues to degrade.
The problem is especially pronounced in Africa, where soils are easily degraded by continuous cultivation. According to the International Journal of Soil Sustainability, almost one-third of the crop land in sub-Saharan Africa is degraded owing 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, such as the highlands of Ethiopia.
This has significant repercussions for the work of ending hunger. Globally, most people who experience hunger are small-scale farmers, many of them in Africa.
“You can’t talk about ending global hunger without addressing the issue of soil fertility,” says Theresa Rempel Mulaire, the manager of Scaling-Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
Through this program, which is supported by a $14-million matching grant from the Government of Canada, the Foodgrains Bank is supporting some 50,000 farmers in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya in improving the quality of their soil. The aim of the program is to ensure that local families no longer experience hunger.
Through training, extension workers, and ongoing farmer-to-farmer support, growers are learning to implement conservation agriculture techniques. It is an approach that emphasizes minimal soil disturbance, crop rotation, mulching, and cover crops to improve soil health and fertility, and thus increase production.
“Our goal is to move from conservation agriculture 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 the team has observed is the interest the program has generated among high-ranking officials from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Foodgrains Bank staff members were initially concerned that government extension workers in Ethiopia might not be interested in conservation agriculture techniques, and might even counsel farmers against using them.
“Conservation agriculture techniques differ from the conventional farming systems that people have been using to grow food for generations,” says Rempel Mulaire. “Encouraging people, particularly government officials, to adhere to a certain curriculum is difficult.”
The reaction from Ethiopian officials came as a welcome surprise. On being presented with policy and background information, the ministry expressed interest in including conservation agriculture principles in their official soil health manuals. But first they wanted to see for themselves what conservation agriculture projects looked like on the ground, and speak to the farmers themselves.
At the end of November, staff from Ethiopian partners managing the conservation projects on behalf of the Foodgrains Bank took 11 officials from the Ministry of Agriculture to three different regions of Ethiopia where the projects are being implemented. The group included officials who were in favour of the initiative as well as some who were skeptical.
“From the beginning, the ministry team was very inquisitive,” reports Frew Beriso, a conservation agriculture technical specialist at the Foodgrains Bank who provides support to the program. “They asked a lot of questions of the farmers and the partner staff. By halfway through the visit, however, it seemed that most of them were more than satisfied. I don’t think they expected to see such a noticeable difference between conservation agriculture and conventional farming techniques. Seeing the projects in person really solidified things for them.”
“The project visit and subsequent inclusion of conservation agriculture techniques into official government curriculum are significant,” says Rempel Mulaire. “It makes the changes we’re working on more sustainable.”
The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of churches and church agencies working to end global hunger. In the 2016 - 2017 budget year, the partnership provided over $41 million of assistance to over 900,000 people in 35 countries.