Fertilisers can help African farmers battle climate change

Fertilisers can help African farmers battle climate change
Ten years ago, a group of 53 African ministers of agriculture met in Abuja, Nigeria to discuss what they referred to as “Africa’s fertiliser crisis”. They shared their collective observations on the state of the continent’s agricultural production systems at the time, agreeing unanimously that “bold and urgent action” would be needed if the sector were to play its part in tackling the widespread rural poverty, hunger, and malnutrition facing its population.

Crop yields in Africa were only 10-25 percent of the yields found in the developed world, leaving the continent dependent on billions of dollars worth of food imports. No great surprise, fertiliser use was also around 10 percent of the global average. Around two-thirds of Africa’s soils were thought to be degraded, causing an estimated $4 billion in GDP losses on the continent each year.

African leaders knew these losses were untenable, given high levels of poverty in a rapidly expanding population. In response, they called for a systematic increase in average fertiliser use – from 8kg per hectare to 50kg per hectare by the year 2015.

Fast forward to 2016, and another African city – this time in Marrakesh, Morocco – is playing host to another important meeting: the annual UN climate talks. Thousands of delegates will descend to discuss how to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions while building the resilience of societies and economies against global warming.

Food security in Africa will be a key concern at the conference with the Moroccan government launching its AAA initiative, which focuses on Adaptation in African Agriculture.

African farmers are among the principal victims of extreme temperatures and weather events, which are expected to worsen as a result of climate change. As just one example, the recent devastating El NiƱo-induced drought left millions in Southern and Eastern Africa in need of food assistance when crops failed across the region.

It is, therefore, the ideal moment to revisit the issue of Africa’s fertiliser crisis and determine how to move forward on the agenda set in Abuja ten years ago in a “climate-smart” way. Climate-smart agriculture requires agricultural practices that provide the “triple win” of boosting productivity and livelihoods, increasing resilience and minimising greenhouse gas emissions. Fertilisers play a crucial role in all three areas.

Food security in Africa will simply not be achievable without fertilisers. Vast tracts of Africa’s arable land lack the nutrients needed to grow healthy crops. Applying appropriate fertilisers according to soil type will not only improve soil conditions but also enhance the productivity of food crops as yields increase.

By helping farmers to crop more crops on less land, fertilisers also help farmers spare more forests and pastures from conversion to farmland – one of the biggest single drivers of climate change. And nutrient-rich, healthy soils tend also to be more resilient under stressful growing conditions, which reduces crop losses and helps farmers adapt.