Tag Archives: Montpellier Panel

Soils for life: Some cautionary tales for the International Year of Soils

You may not know, but 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soils are of course vitally important for agriculture and livelihoods, but they often go unsung and are routinely uncared for. The Year of Soils, promoted by the FAO, is aimed to put soils into the spotlight. The Director General of the FAO, Jose Graziano Da Silva, puts it nicely: “”The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production”.

The recent high-profile Montpellier Panel report pulls together much of the science, and makes a strong case for taking an integrated and holistic approach to soil management to promote soil health. If we lose soils, then we lose the basis for life, it argues. While climate change, correctly, has gained the international spotlight, making sure the basic substrate for human survival is in a good condition may be equally important.

If you want to learn more about soils you can attend an event virtually every week somewhere in the world this year. A highlight is the ‘Global Soil Week’ in Berlin next month, when soil science and policy will be discussed in a number of sessions. The organisers have produced a ‘Soil Atlas’, a compilation of infographics, which projects the data and the importance of soils.

Yet we must be careful when making the case for soils that we do not simplify and overstate. This is always a temptation when trying to raise the profile of an issue. To generate attention, headline grabbing statistics are always helpful. But they may not actually be useful, as they can distort responses and obscure understandings. Thus, while I agree with virtually everything in the new Montpellier report, I was disappointed to find that the old and much disputed figures of global soil degradation and nutrient loss are trotted out yet again.

There is no doubt that changes in soil structure, losses through erosion and soil fertility decline are important issues. But these global figures are derived from some dubious calculations that are often rather meaningless. Aggregated up from multiple small studies, they say nothing about how soil and nutrients move around landscapes; they say nothing about how soil nutrients are made available in different settings; and they say nothing about the net effects on livelihoods given people’s adaptive capacities.

These endless presentation of these dubious figures irk me especially because we spent a long time in the late 1990s and early 2000s trying to generate a more sophisticated debate about soil fertility in African agriculture. In 1999, Camilla Toulmin and I asked whether nutrient budgeting has any use for policy. In the same year, we did a report for DFID on the subject. In 2001, a major book, Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa, (pdf here) followed. This offers an overall summary of the extensive field research from Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe. The follow-up 2003 book, Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa, (pdf here) offered reflections on the politics of policy around soils and land degradation, with cases again from the same countries. These issues were further debated in 2008 as part of a Future Agricultures Consortium convened e-debate.

In a series of four forthcoming blogs, I will highlight some of the issues raised and draw on the discussions in the e-debate. These remain as pertinent today as they did then. The bottom-line message is that we should base our understandings and response on what is happening on the ground, not on simplistic, aggregated assessments based on problematic nutrient accounting techniques or soil erosion and degradation measures calculated at inappropriate scales, often based on remote sensing and mapping that cannot get to grips with the variegated patterns of soils.

Instead a social and technical analysis is more appropriate a farm and landscape level, where we can gauge how people use and manage soils, and find ways to improve soil quality – including soil organic composition, structure, biodiversity, and nutrients (macro and micro). Soils are immensely complex ecosystems, and so are management responses by farmers, who have deep and intimate knowledge of these vital resources.

Rejecting the headline numbers and questioning the rhetoric about soil degradation (and desertification and the rest) does not mean to say that I do not think that these are pressing and important problems, as some have tried to argue in the past. Quite the opposite. I just think that an appropriate diagnosis of the problem leads to better solutions, and that the alarmist, generalised, disaster oriented statistics can lead to the wrong, and often highly damaging, responses.

There is a long history of this in Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular. The 1930s dustbowl in the US provided a clarion call for colonial scientists to intervene in what they saw as fast-degrading peasant agricultural systems. The soil engineers designed ridging systems and so on to protect the soil from erosion, and these were often highly inappropriate and widely resented. Indeed in Zimbabwe, the top-down enforcement of soil erosion measures was the basis for mobilisation by freedom fighters in the liberation, so resented were they. To this day, the grumbling we hear around the ‘dig and die’ conservation farming impositions result in similar resentments. It’s not as if farmers reject the idea of soil management, but they argue that these are not always the right responses. And indeed there are many scientists who agree.

Alternative innovations for managing soil, nutrients and water in farm systems are plentiful, but not part of large-scale programmes, as Mr Phiri’s experiments in Zvishavane graphically show. The diagram below was drawn with farmers in Chivi as part of our earlier work (and appears in the book). It shows how soil nutrients flow around the farm, and are managed. This response is not simply responding to an aggregate soil nutrient deficit, but takes into account income, labour, asset ownership (livestock, carts and so on), topography, agroecology and farm management priorities, and so on, to come up with a system of soil management that is highly sophisticated, and site specific. It involves both organic and inorganic sources of nutrients; it uses application techniques that maximise plant uptake (fertilisers can be applied in microdoses with teaspoons, for example); it differentiates between different soil types (often variable within a single field); it matches soil improvement with farm and household priorities; and it combines an outfield arable production system with intensive gardening.

Above all, most smallholder farms in Africa use an integrated approach to soil management. Farmers are not concerned with the ideological positions of ‘agroecology’ versus ‘chemical agriculture’, organic versus inorganic, and so on. In most farms, fertilisers are combined with manure, with waste and compost, and directed in ways that maximise their value. Farmers are not concerned with the labels adopted by NGOs and policy advocates. Too much of the debate about soils and farming does not connect to the field realities and livelihood challenges of real farmers. Too often the debate is played out with misleading statistics, aimed more at raising money and profile than revealing complex realities, and in ideological ghettos that create unhelpful fundamentalisms around what should be done (in an unrealistic ideal world), rather than what makes sense.

In the next few weeks – marking the International Year of Soils – this blog will explore some of these issues in more depth, with the hope that we can get beyond the unhelpful divides and inappropriate responses that have characterised thinking about soil management in Africa over too many years.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sustainable intensification: a new buzzword to feed the world?

The term ‘sustainable intensification(SI) has entered academic and policy discourse in recent years, including in debates about what to do about agriculture in Zimbabwe. I have been intrigued for some while to find out what it actually means. Is this yet another contradictory hyphenation of two words for political ends, or does it have some substance? Who is driving this debate, and what does it mean for Africa?

A flurry of publications have been produced in the past year or two that use the term, and they provide a good route to finding out a bit more. A high profile article in Science from 2013 offered a definition of SI: “to increase food production from existing farmland in ways that place far less pressure on the environment and that do not undermine our capacity to continue producing food in the future”. The major Montpellier Panel report offer a similar one, defining SI as “producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs on a durable basis, while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services”. Other similar formulations appear in a recent Royal Society collection of papers. No one could disagree with these it seems. Is SI then just what we used to call sustainable agriculture, or is there something more to it?

To answer this, we have to probe a bit further and ask what analytical frameworks underpin the concept and its definition, and what policy narratives flow from it? The Science article, and the Oxford Martin School report which preceded it, situate the challenge in terms of the familiar argument about resource scarcity – of land, water, and resources – in relation to a growing population of 9 billion needing to be fed. This justifies a ‘crisis narrative’ argument that pushes towards a productivist response: more food is needed on less land with less water, requiring new technologies to deliver it.

The challenge is often couched in the well-used metaphor of the ‘perfect storm’, memorably used by the former Chief Scientist in the UK to argue for a global response to impending food shortages, in the build up to the oft-cited 2011 UK Foresight report. In recent years a new version of this narrative, with a new word, has emerged. This is now portrayed as the challenge of ‘the nexus’, where multiple resource constraints come together requiring a particular style of (usually) technical, top-down response.

While no one would argue against improving resource use efficiency and boosting production in sustainable ways, it is the link between this technical challenge and the wider framing of the problem and solution where issues arise. These have been outlined in a recent paper on land issues that I co-authored, but the same arguments could be applied to other resources, and the challenges of agriculture in Africa more generally.

  •  First, we must be careful when proclaiming generic resource scarcity as the driving force for action. My scarcity may be someone else’s surplus: scarcities are always relative, and resource access and distribution is a crucial issue that is not addressed by this narrative.
  •  Second, because scarcities are constructed in policy arenas, there is a political dimension that must be acknowledged. So-called ‘global’ scarcities are very often the consequence of high unequal power relations, skewed consumption patterns and poor resource governance.
  •  Third, a solely technical response through increasing production or efficiency in ways that conserve the environment – often laden with yet more jargon such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘conservation agriculture’ – ignores the social and political choices around technology and its direction. A crisis narrative that forces a particular trajectory may restrict debate about alternative choices, and debates about pros, cons, risks and rewards. A good case in point is the promotion of GM crops by certain large corporations in terms of ‘sustainable intensification’ (see last week’s blog).

The advocates of SI are quick to point out that their approach does not promote any particular technology over another. Various declarations reiterate this, and a recent Royal Society publication offers a huge array of different technological solutions under the SI banner. The Montpellier Panel, a group of well-known agriculture experts, are even more explicit. They point out the potential for capture of the term and its politicisation:

“the term “Sustainable Intensification” –– has come to take on a highly charged and politicised meaning, becoming synonymous with big, industrial agriculture. As we strive to feed a population expected to reach nine billion by 2050 sustainably, the risk is that we may lose sight of the term’s scientific value and its potential relevance to all types of agricultural systems, including for smallholder farmers in Africa”

Equally, the Oxford report argues for the need to “deepen and extend understanding of systems interactions”, to “consider and define what specific goals societies wish agricultural production to achieve” and to “develop metrics that will enable societies to measure progress in achieving them”. All good stuff, resonant with long running debates about sustainable agriculture, and discussions on the politics and direction of innovation outlined in the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development.

Yet in all this warm-sounding rhetoric there is an absence of social and political analysis that undermines the approach. In the late 1980s I joined the recently formed ‘Sustainable Agriculture Group’ at the International Institute of Environment and Development, together with Gordon Conway and Jules Pretty. Our approach to agricultural sustainability was in many ways strikingly similar to the current debate about SI. But with one important difference: people and their livelihoods were central. Our work evolved in concert with debates about ‘sustainable livelihoods’ and participatory approaches to development, and had as a result a very different flavour.

Looking at the long lists of authors of papers and reports on SI there are, beyond a scattering of economists, vanishingly few social scientists involved. This is telling, and reflective of the sometimes naïve perspectives portrayed, about the political and social contexts of these debates. Frequently, a techno-economic determinism dominates, driven of course by a passion and commitment to addressing major challenges, but without the necessary social and policy analysis to make it happen, and avoid it being captured.

Take the diagrammatic representations of the approach by the Montpellier Panel. Here ‘farmers’ and ‘communities’ are put at the centre, but all the action happens around them, seemingly disconnected. Agrodealers represent the market, but the process of sustainable intensification seems to be driven by a technical process. It is all well and good arguing that societal goals are defined, as the Oxford report does, but how can this happen, through what political process? In the terms of the New Manifesto, how are innovation directions set, how are the diversity of options defined, and how are the costs and benefits distributed? These are issues that seem not to be on the table, or at least not in ways that are central.

If SI is to have any meaning beyond a seemingly uncontroversial, hyphenated buzzword, then these are the questions that must be put centre stage. For SI to be anything more than a rather odd collection of technical solutions, then questions of socio-technical choice and direction must be put at the forefront. This means having a political debate, and bringing in people more centrally, something that may jar with the rather bland techno-economic prescriptions offered to date.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland



Filed under Uncategorized