Emmy Simmons

Maybe declining soil fertility is a symptom rather than a disease.

Many African governments and donors are trying to treat the symptom without analyzing the causes of the disease: providing technology packages, tinkering with subsidy options, seeing what the private sector can do, and looking for innovative farmers who have figured out how to manage the symptoms.

The Future Agricultures paper is very helpful in reviewing all of these efforts — but it does not get down to highlighting some of the causes of the disease:
— land tenure policies that reduce farmers’ incentives to invest in maintaining land quality;
— population growth rates that outstrip productivity growth rates;
— commodity markets that make investing in soil maintenance uneconomic;
— transport systems that are so inefficient that fertilizer costs are outrageous when compared to the value of output produced;
— inconsistent government policy — just when one course of treatment is beginning to show promise, the diagnosis is changed and a new antibiotic is ordered; and
— lack of technical knowledge/analytical capacity on the part of many producers.

More attention to causal factors would set off a whole new and more policy-oriented discussion that might actually make a difference over the next 20 years.  Otherwise I fear we will be supplying band-aids here, iodine there, vitamins tomorrow, and antibiotics the next day.  Let’s make it worthwhile for farmers to invest in the quality of their soil (tenure, remunerative markets for products), give them the training/information they need to adapt generic recommendations (whether through demonstrations, farmer field schools, or whatever), and cut the costs as much as possible by investing in efficient importing/transport/competitive sales systems.

Emmy Simmons, Board Member
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)