By Samuel Eze (University of Lincoln) and Andrew Dougill (University of York), both formerly University of Leeds
Soil degradation and climate change are major threats to food system resilience across Africa that require sustainable land use and management practices to reduce their impacts. Various land management practices are being promoted by both government and non-governmental organisations globally with the promise of boosting food production without degrading the environment. However, recommended land management practices are often not widely adopted partly due to a lack of a site-specific evidence base. To address these challenges, it is important to encourage and strengthen the researcher-farmer relationships as part of efforts to achieve a resilient food system and food security.
Landslide on a farm in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania.
As part of the soil science component of the recent AFRICAP project, we sought to build evidence base on the impacts on soils of various land management practices that are being promoted in sub-Saharan Africa. These included evaluation of Conservation Agriculture in central and southern Malawi and of Soil and Water Conservation practices in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. Findings from our conventional soil testing, e.g. in this paper, show that conservation agriculture is a promising strategy for improving the resilience of the agricultural system to environmental stress but maximum benefits depend on a combination of site-specific factors including soil type and availability of crop residues.
Implementing Conservation Agriculture without accounting for the environmental factors such as soil type that influence its impacts will lead to disappointing results. This was the case of a farmer in Malawi who had implemented conservation agriculture on ‘heavy’ soils (soils with high clay content) and had low crop yield as the field got waterlogged. We also conducted interviews with farmers to understand their perspectives on soil health and their land management decisions. As shown in this paper, it was very clear that farmers use various characteristics of plants and soils as indicators of soil health. This influenced their choice of land management practices. For example, the farmers we interviewed in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania added organic manure where they see a change in soil colour from black to red.
Our findings (e.g. in this paper) suggest that farmers draw from their experiences in making land management decisions. An effective communication between farmers and researchers will: 1) help researchers to understand farmers’ experiences and design their research accordingly; and 2) give farmers a better access to research findings, which can explain their observed farm outcomes. More effective communication between all stakeholders in the agri-food system will help to ensure that locally-appropriate land management practices are implemented to achieve maximum benefits in terms of system resilience to climate change, without degrading the environment.
Lead image: Farmer discussions on terracing, crop residue management and soil health.