(Beyond Pesticides, October 24, 2023) Sub-Saharan Africa, often celebrated for its rich cultural diversity and stunning landscapes, is also home to a growing crisis beneath its surface â€“ the depletion of its ancient soils. These soilsâ€“some of the oldest in the worldâ€“have undergone long periods of weathering and erosion, leading to severe nutrient deficiencies. Potassium, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, vital for crop growth, are notably absent from these soils. Due to this and a dependency on synthetic fertilizers, along with an absence of soil and water conservation programs and other complex issues stemming from poor infrastructure, pervasive government instability, and colonialism, African soils have a markedly decreased ability to sustain high-yielding food crops. As a result, restoring soil health through the nurturing of microbial activity and the natural cycling of nutrients is identified as the number-one priority to improve agricultural productivity and ensure food sovereignty.
While it might seem that African farmers could turn to organic or chemical fertilizers to address soil nutrient deficiencies, the reality is quite different. The high costs associated with these fertilizers make them largely inaccessible to most African farmers. Even though the average fertilizer application rate In Sub-Saharan Africa is 22 kilograms per hectare, significantly lower than the global average of 146 kilograms per hectare, the costs of even this limited fertilizer application are continually rising. A key factor contributing to these soaring costs is that the components required to make fertilizers are priced in U.S. dollars. This means that fluctuations in the value of the U.S. dollar impact the affordability of fertilizers in other countries. Consequently, African farmers rarely have the means to access the essential nutrients their soils require.
Moreover, over the past several years, the cost issues associated with fertilizer production and importation have been exacerbated. It began with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted the supply chain and raised transportation costs for fertilizer ingredients, making it less affordable for African farmers. The situation worsened with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted shipments of critical components for fertilizer production. The resulting sanctions against major gas-producing nationsâ€“including Russiaâ€“have caused energy prices to rise. For fertilizer production, this meant increased costs associated with the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process, which produces synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
Likewise, potashâ€“a crucial source of potassium for fertilizersâ€“was also affected by international conflicts. Belarus, a major supplier of potash, faced restrictions on its sales due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Additionally, Lithuanian restrictions against Belarusâ€™s potash transport have further disrupted the availability of potassium, an essential nutrient for plant growth.Â
African farmers deeply feel the consequences of these global disruptions. Fertilizer prices more than doubled, leaving them unable to afford the essential nutrients that are deficient in their soil. They are now faced with the grim reality of harvesting fewer or no crops at all, compounded by the impacts of climate change, from floods to locust invasions, decimating the already precarious crops they manage to grow.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s plight is part of a broader global crisis. The soaring prices and disruption in the fertilizer market have repercussions far beyond the African continent. Farmers in developed countries have benefitted from subsidies that cover the cost of natural gas and diesel fuel needed for farming, affording to plant more and purchase more fertilizer. This widening global disparity in access to fertilizers threatens food security on a massive scale.
With 220 million of the world’s 800 million undernourished people residing in Sub-Saharan Africa, fixing African soils is one of the most pressing issues. As the population in the region is set to double by 2050, there is an urgency for new solutions to alleviate the current situation while pacifying the worsening effects of climate change.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s soils require organic matter to enrich the soil, promote nutrient availability, and support microbial activity. However, many farmers struggle to afford or access sufficient crop residue, compost, or animal manure.
In the face of financial hardship, some farmers have explored methods to enhance soil productivity without relying on fertilizers, a strategy with potential, though not an immediate solution to the food insecurity challenge. Transitioning to organic fertilizers may improve ecological sustainability, but it can take years for crops to reach the yields achieved with synthetic counterparts in depleted soils. While reducing synthetic fertilizer dependency is a promising long-term approach, it is essential to recognize that the immediate needs of millions of people struggling with food scarcity cannot be ignored during the transition to healthy soils.
Some successful methods that do not require synthetic fertilizer usage have fallen under a concept known as â€śperenniation.â€ť This approach involves growing perennial plants like trees, shrubs, and legumes alongside food crops. These perennial plants provide carbon and nitrogen to the soil, aiding in retaining water, reducing erosion, and improving crop yields. Additionally, they can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and fight off pests.
For example, over 30,000 farmers in East Africa have utilized a “push-pull system,” planting specific perennial plants among corn fields. These plants suppress insect pests and weeds, mitigate erosion, produce animal feed, and reduce the need for fertilizers.Â
The utilization of biofertilizers is another promising avenue. Biofertilizers contain helpful microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to aid and improve nutrient availability in soil. Instead of entirely relying on synthetic nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, certain bacteria can undergo processes that make these nutrients available to plants. For example, nitrogen-fixing bacteria like Bradyrhizobium, Azotobacter, and Rhizobium convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can utilize.
Phosphate-solubilizing bacteria like Pseudomonas, Bacillus, and Rhizobium work by solubilizing phosphate present in the soil but not in a plant-usable form. They enhance the availability of phosphorus to plants. As for potassium, certain microorganisms, including Bacillus and Paenibacillus, are known to release potassium from minerals in the soil, making it more accessible to plants.
These methods may also offer a practical alternative for farmers lacking soil analysis and fertilizer application training. A significant percentage of African farmers struggle to assess their soil conditions accurately due to a lack of training and resources associated with soil testing. Without this understanding, applying fertilizers can have potentially harmful consequences. Many experts argue that adding nutrients to the soil without a prior understanding of its existing composition and the specific needs of the crops is risky. It can disrupt soil chemistry, including pH levels, and harm biodiversity.Â
Moreover, the self-sufficiency and farmer sovereignty these natural solutions provide are not only a benefit but a necessity moving forward. The region’s dependence on external sources for food and fertilizer makes it highly vulnerable to global conflicts, like the Russian-Ukrainian war, and volatile international markets. Self-sustaining agriculture bolsters food security and enhances resilience in the face of economic and political instability worldwide.
Therefore, adopting a gradual shift away from synthetic fertilizers would be the pragmatic path forward in Africa and beyond. The harms of synthetic fertilizers are being felt beyond Africa due to the many adverse environmental impacts. Synthetic nitrogen production alone accounts for approximately 1% of all human-made carbon dioxide emissions. It is widely acknowledged that synthetic fertilizers are often overused, contributing to environmental challenges.
For more information on how you can take individual action to address these environmental concerns related to synthetic fertilizers, please visit the Beyond Pesticides website, which provides a list of fertilizers compatible with organic landscape management.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.Â