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Transdisciplinary perspectives on soils are crucial for sustainability

As I have mentioned on this blog before, 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soils are important, but despite this are poorly understood. And I don’t just mean their physical, chemical or biological properties, but soils are also social, political and economic resources.

In order to understand soils properly, we need a transdisciplinary perspective that broadens out our analysis and opens up debates about what soils are for and for whom. Such an approach is central to the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of the ‘pathways approach’ developed by the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex.

In a recent paper for Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (vol 15), I explored this in relation to soils, and with examples from earlier work in Ethiopia. It is as relevant to any setting, and it is the wider plea for a transdisciplinary approach that is most important. Without such an approach, achieving sustainable solutions to soil health will be impossible. You can read the short article here (until 23 October) and here.

This is from the abstract:

“Soils must be understood from a transdisciplinary perspective, integrating biophysical, social, economic and political understandings. This requires new combinations of methods. This paper introduces the STEPS ‘pathways approach’, which emphasises the importance of ‘framing’ of different options.

Through a case study from Ethiopia, the possibilities of a transdisciplinary analysis of soils are explored. This highlights the importance of investigating the spatial patterning of nutrients in farm landscapes, and the social processes that influence why soils have different levels of fertility, as well as how local dynamics are influenced by wider policy framings.

A set of participatory methods, including farm mapping, landscape level transect walks and biographical analysis of people and places, is discussed. These help broaden out analysis and open up debate, exposing alternative pathways to sustainability”.

You may remember that earlier in the year, I did a set of posts on soils. Here they are if you missed them:

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

Homefields and outfields: different sites, different response to soil management

Why an integrated approach to soil management is essential

Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Soil management in Africa: ways forward

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

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Soil management in Africa: ways forward

Some years ago, as part of the e-debate hosted by the Future Agricultures Consortium we had a discussion on ways forward on soil fertility management policy. The conclusions are just as relevant today. In reviewing the excellent contributions to the debate (well worth a read), I highlighted 6 themes.

Context matters. Contexts – social, economic and ecological – must be taken into account in policy. Simple, blanket solutions do not work. They have been tried before and failed; and we should avoid making the same mistakes, no matter how urgent the situation is or who much money there is to be disbursed.

The argument against continent-wide (or even national) blueprint programmes has of course been long made. That is not new. Which contexts matter and what implications does this have for what should be done on the ground? This relates to the question about the merits of using inorganic fertilizers as the entry point to an integrated soil fertility management approach. There are contrasting, often ideologically-charged views on this. But there may be more consensus if we get specific about context.

Figure 1 offers a very simple, rather crude matrix of contexts. One axis focuses on agro-ecological contexts (from low to high responsive soils and available soil moisture). The other axis focuses on socio-economic contexts (from conditions where returns to inputs are high to those where they are low), emphasising context-specific input profitability and affordability.

Figure 1: Contexts for soil fertility management


Low responsive soils (loworganic matter, low rainfall) High responsive soils
Poor returns to inputs(profitability and affordability low)



Low external input options make more sense – external support required 


Efficient application (e.g. micro- dosing) critical – market assisted 
High returns Mixed strategy appropriate Application of inorganics make sense – market based

In situations where soils are highly responsive (to external inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers, and so have above-threshold levels of organic matter), and where returns to inputs are significant (and are perhaps the major factor constraining production – i.e. land tenure, market and other production constraints are not so important), then programmes focused on inorganic fertiliser use appear to make a lot of sense.

This does not mean that these should be high-level, blanket recommendations – all sorts of efficiency measures (such as micro-dosing) make sense. It equally doesn‟t mean that investing in the building up of organic material (through cover crops, green manuring, low/no-till etc.) is irrelevant. Far from it: the responsiveness of soils, and therefore the returns to inorganic fertiliser, is highly dependent on this being sustained.

But what about in situations where soils are less responsive (due to low organic matter, poor rainfall, or a combination of both), or where returns to inputs are low (due to high prices of the inputs, low prices of farm products and poor market and transport linkages)? Here the conclusion is less obvious. Here an integrated, and long-term effort is essential, with combination of technologies, services and policies.

Contexts outside the bottom-right hand box of Figure 1 are by far the most numerous in Africa, and are where most poor people live. Unfortunately most programmes, at least implicitly, seem to focus on the bottom right corner, as contexts are not considered as explicitly as they need to be.

Scale matters too. A consideration of context must occur at different scales. Figure 1 could be applied at regional, national, district, village, farm or field levels. The two axes can vary over very short distances, as both agroecologies and market conditions change.

The responsiveness of soils (and so the appropriateness of different fertility inputs) can vary dramatically within a farm and field, and farmers’ own soil fertility management strategies are often geared to this micro- scale. Micro-dosing with inorganic fertilisers, complemented by organic fertiliser applications, can allow very fine-tuned approaches at these micro scales.

Thus larger-scale programmes must be able to respond to scale variations and be flexible in their design and approach. They equally need to be supported by both participatory, bottom-up design principles, but also by effective soil diagnostic, testing and mapping approaches.

Socio-economic differentiation is important. Different soil fertility management strategies make sense to different farmers, depending on their own socio-economic context. In other words, in relation to Figure 1, the vertical axis varies across households (and even within households, say between men and women) depending on patterns of socio-economic differentiation.

This is clearly important for targeting and the design of programmes, such as differentiation between households with different levels of market access. Designing input support schemes requires a detailed understanding of such socio-economic variation. In some areas and for some households simple market mechanisms, perhaps supporting the growth of agro-dealer networks, may work well. In other areas, focused ‘smart subsidies’ may allow a positive spiral to develop, where more farm output leads to more investment in soil fertility inputs. In other areas for other households a more broad-based support will be needed, focused on providing a social safety net.

Past experience, and much current practice, avoids such differentiation, opting instead for a bureaucratically easier and more politically-saleable blanket approach, open to political manipulation. This has been the case in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, with fertiliser subsidy and handouts being part of political patronage networks, involving both the state and non-state actors. This is dangerous, generating distortions, disincentives and inefficiencies.

Don’t forget longer-term dynamic trends. As discussed, contexts matter, but they are not fixed. They vary across space and across socio-economic group. They also change over time. A number of longer-term dynamic trends are mentioned across the contributions, each of which can dramatically affect the configuration of the axes in Figure 1.

Climate change, and with this changing rainfall and temperature patterns, is especially significant. A drying climate, with more variable rainfall and hotter temperatures (as predicted for significant areas of Africa) may make the application of inorganic fertilisers less like a good bet, as the contexts shift (to the left in Figure 1). In some areas, of course, the opposite may happen. This deep uncertainty about the long- term dynamics of climate must affect planning for soil fertility programmes. Adaptation measures which improve resilience will have to be part of these – and this means thinking about water, sanitation systems and soils at the same time. Basic soil and water conservation measures can go a long way, as can low/no till approaches, mulching and cover crops, as long as labour costs are not too excessive. Integrating cropping with livestock production has many spin-off benefits for soil fertility management.

Another trend – and in the last period a dramatic shift – is the price of inorganic fertiliser. This is a key factor in shifting the profitability and affordability – and the relative balance of different options. With inorganic fertiliser prices (of N and P) having increased by many fold, this clearly has shifted contexts too (to the top of Figure 1). Many questions arise: Is this going to be a long-term trend or a blip, potentially reversed by declines in oil prices? What will drive long-term change? How will fertiliser manufacturing and packaging investment in Africa make a difference?

There were no easy answers to these questions. But they need addressing in any future designs of policy and programmes, with measures to protect against future shocks and long term trends. Past interventions have often been disastrous, undermining the capacity of the African agricultural sector to respond. The abolition of fertiliser subsidies and the virtual ban on parastatals in the 1980s/1990s was a big mistake according to many. As with the technical responses on the ground, diversity and flexibility in design are the key words, if long-term resilience and sustainable development pathways are the aim.

In thinking about policy we need to have long-term trends in mind. if people are moving out of farming, or engaging as part-time farmers, straddling different livelihoods, the economics of soil fertility management may be seen in a very different way. Designing programmes on the assumption of full-time farming is increasingly problematic, and serious attention needs to be paid to the soil fertility management needs of ‘future farmers’ not just assumed ‘ideal type farmers;; potentially with quite different scenarios playing out in different places for different people.

Cultural dimensions of soil fertility management need to be central. There are many dangers of a ‘technical fix’ mode to solving soil fertility problems. It’s important to ask how farmers frame the problem themselves. Farmers often don’t see things the way some soil scientists do. Their understandings of soils are more holistic, centred on a perspective that looks at the wider ‘health’ of the soil-plant system.

Local peoples‟ knowledge, which consists not merely in picturesque representations of the properties and potentials of local soils, inherited from the past (“indigenous‟ knowledge) but also in experiential and adaptive knowledge from project successes or failures as found relevant to their livelihood circumstances.

The solution is not necessarily to apply some ‘medicine’ (or fertiliser), but to deal with the problem systemically. Indeed, in some contexts, inorganic fertilisers are viewed with suspicion, being seen as foreign contaminants of soils. This holistic perspective is more akin to agro- ecological approaches, where a more integrative view of soil systems is required.

A shift in perspective on the part of science and policy may be needed if the slogans of ‘soil health; for Africa are to have purchase. The indigenous, cultural understandings of soils and their management need to be taken on board, and seen as central to the design of programmes and policies.

Understandings that really get to grips with the complexities and dynamics of complex systems are essential. A variety of professional, institutional and other biases often prevents scientific analysis and policy-making from engaging with this. This remains a massive challenge, especially for the implementation of large programmes focused on soil fertility, and suggests a substantial capacity development focus for the future.

So how to go beyond the diagnostic-prescriptive framework for designing intervention and promoting change, driven by aggregate figures and simplistic framings? How to get nuance and specificity into the “special initiatives” or “Africa-wide programmes” that no doubt will follow from the International Year of Soils. As Ken Giller from Wageningen has argued, we must go from an obsession with ideal designs, or even ‘best bet‟ technologies or ‘best practice‟ management, to a ‘best fit‟ approach, that takes context – and so agro-ecological and socioeconomic contexts – as the starting point.

Perhaps some version of Figure 1 might therefore offer a just the sort of heuristic to help such a design as part of a conversation between planners, scientists and farmers that helps get us beyond the ruts that soil management policy has got into. This is vital for the post-settlement support necessary in the land reform areas in Zimbabwe, just as it is across smallholder Africa. If the 2015 International Year of Soils, that this blog series marks, is to have any meaning, the lessons and cautions noted above, and in previous blogs must be heeded.

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


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Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – launched a major ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort. The Abuja declaration, following on from the African Fertilizer Summit of 2006 set the scene for major investments in boosting fertilizer supplies. CAADP – the Comprehensive African Agricultural Developent Programme – has been active in supporting the follow up to the summit, particularly through it work on improving markets and trade. Other initiatives abound – the Millennium Villages programme, Sasakawa-Global 2000, the activities of the Association for Better Land Husbandry, among many others. All see soil fertility as central, although the suggested solutions and policy requirements are very different.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in sustainable ways; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate.

What would a framework for policy and implementation look like? This is much more contested. A variety of ‘models’ – often with rather implicit policy assumptions – are being, or have been, tested. These include (among many others, and different permutations):

A technology package approach: state led extension delivery– high input demonstration plots linked to a programme of extension and credit support to encourage uptake of a technically recommended package (usually associated with improved seeds). This has been standard fare of most agriculture departments for years, but with limited impact – as the evaluations of the World Bank’s Training and Visit system showed. SG-2000 developed a more focused approach in the 1990s, with variable success, in part because the input levels recommended were very high (and expensive – up to 150kg/ha), and so often inappropriate to agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Other ‘package approaches’ have focused on agroforestry, conservation tillage and other technologies, but up-take and wider impact has been patchy.

Universal subsidies, price control and state support for input supply – the state-led subsidy approach of the 1970s and 80s involved highly controlled fertiliser markets and price control/subsidy. These systems were largely overseen by large parastatal organisations which offered pan-territorial pricing and supply through distributed depot networks, often linked to credit schemes often with poor pay-back records. Subsidy programmes were initiated in response to major oil/gas price hikes in the 1970s and persisted at huge cost to the state until economic liberalisation policies were introduced from the 1980s. They have been widely criticised, although positive outcomes have been realised, such as in Malawi, but at great cost to the exchequer and with high risks of intensifying patronage.

‘Smart’ subsidies and voucher schemes: facilitating market mechanisms – this approach has been tested widely, resulting in substantial boosts in aggregate production of maize, particularly in the good rainy seasons. This resulted in decreased food prices, benefiting not only producers but also consumers (many of the rural poor), and hopefully triggering an upward spiral of investment and labour generation. Questions over long term financial sustainability have been raised, given the high costs of imported fertiliser, and the potentials for leakage and poor targeting in the voucher system.

Village level demonstration and extension: area based integrated development – this approach is at the heart of the Millennium Villages Programme, and has been a feature of integrated rural development programmes of different sorts for decades. The programme, for example, offers subsidised fertiliser and shows its effect through demonstration plots. This has resulted in significant increases in fertiliser use and substantial yield growth, claimed to be up to three times previous levels.

Bulk purchase, packaging and local manufacture: investments to deal with upstream supply constraints

Many of the preceding options are reliant on mineral fertilizers in some shape or form. With high production costs due to energy costs (for nitrogen – although declining oil prices should see a shift in this pattern) and limits to easily accessible supplies (for phosphorus), fertilizers are set remain expensive, even relative to higher crop commodity prices. Local packaging and supply has proven successful in areas of high demand, such as Western Kenya through public-private partnership arrangements (e.g. FIPS-Africa), this has meant more appropriate products in packs which are affordable are supplied. To reduce input costs further larger scale interventions are envisaged by some, including bulk purchase of fertiliser for Africa with negotiated price reductions (e.g. the African Development Bank initiative and IFDC’s MIR project). Others have even more ambitious plans for local manufacture of fertilizers in Africa to increase supply and reduce prices, through aid-subsidised investment in plant development. The overall policy frameworks for these initiatives remain unclear, but remain important if appropriate blends/supplies are to get to farmers across diverse Africa farming systems.

Improving agro-dealer networks: making markets work. Improving market access through the support of agro-dealer networks helps to reduce price of inputs and can result in improved information flows and technical advice to farmers. A distributed private sector response to input supply can, however, quickly be undermined by inappropriate subsidies or project intervention. Agro-dealers usually operate on small margins and fluctuations in supply, demand and price can affect their ability to stay in business. Umbrella organisations that support small dealer operations can offset some risks and provide back-up. However, inevitably, most commercially viable operations are in relatively high resource endowment agricultural areas, supplying relatively richer farmers. The reach and poverty impact of private sector based solutions remains hotly debated.

Scaling up local success: project support for local level innovation systems – over many years numerous projects have been initiated that have supported local innovation capacity and the participatory development of technologies. Many of these have focused on managing soil and water resources. Some have proven one-off events with limited uptake; but others have spread widely with major positive impacts on farming livelihoods. How can such successes be replicated, and mainstreamed as part of agricultural development, becoming less reliant on unreliable project based support?

These ‘models’ are familiar to more general approaches to rural development and policy in Africa and beyond. There has been much experience across Africa of each – from the technology packages and extension approaches of the colonial era, revived in the 1970s through Training and Visit to the integrated, area based approaches of the 1960s and 70s to the project mode of the 80s and the market-led approaches of the post-adjustment and economic reform era.

What is interesting today is that all are being proposed and experimented with often in the same place at the same time; yet often with remarkably little reflection on past experiences and lessons. A hardnosed assessment of such lessons is vital in advance of any new initiatives emerging from the International Year of Soils, asking what works where, when and why – and for what?

Does anyone remember the much heralded Soil Fertility Initiative of the early 2000s? What happened to that? New initiatives must not suffer the same fate. Today, there is a political momentum for action generated by a global concern about rising food prices and lagging production. There is a renewed focus on agricultural development as a source of economic growth and poverty reduction, particularly in Africa. And there have been a variety of documented successes across Africa, ranging from the Malawi fertilizer story to local agro-ecological change in the Sahel, from which to draw. Together, these factors combine to a positive context for debating appropriate policy frameworks for soils in Africa.

Some important questions are raised, pertinent to Zimbabwe as elsewhere:

  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?
  •  Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?
  • How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?
  • Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined?

Some of these are addressed in the final blog in this series, coming next week.

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

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Why an integrated approach to soil management is essential

Debates on soils and their management have too often been unnecessarily polarised between promoters of ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘agroecological’ agriculture and those who argue that only large supplies of mineral fertiliser are the answer. These are often pitched in ideological terms, with little reference to technical understandings of soils. What can we learn from the decades of technical research on soils in Africa about what makes sense, where and for whom?

Experience across Africa demonstrates that a ‘one size fits all’ solution is inappropriate. An integrated approach to soils management is required, mixing different inputs in different amounts for different places. Deriving from extensive research we have learned that:

  •  Radical technological solutions to soil nutrient problems, such as through genetic modification for increasing nitrogen fixation, are unlikely given the complexity of the plant genetic/physiological processes involved, except through boosting nutrient utilisation at the margins. Similar gains may be realised by much simpler techniques, such as micro-dosing (see below).
  •  Fallowing remains an important strategy for long-term soil restoration in some places where land pressures are not intense. Improved fallows, using legumes and trees have been shown to have positive impacts. These approaches however take time and require extensive land areas.
  •  Conservation tillage approaches can work well, but reduce the availability of crop residues, often a critical source of fodder in mixed crop-livestock systems. They may be too labour intensive to apply beyond a small garden area. Herbicide based no-till systems developed for large-scale farm+s are usually not appropriate in African farming smallholder farming systems.
  •  While essential, there are distinct limits to biological soil fertility options, particularly in already nutrient-poor soils. Rotation, manuring, composting and other ‘sustainable agriculture’ and ‘low external input’ techniques are valuable, but often require considerable labour and skill inputs, as well as large volumes of biomass.
  • Inorganic fertilizer use is low across Africa, averaging around 9 kg/ha (outside South Africa) according to the FAO. It is highest in southern Africa and lowest in the Sahel and Central Africa. Constraints to fertilizer use include: high prices, high import tariffs, market power of few suppliers, poor supply infrastructure, inappropriate bag sizes, inappropriate blend/mixes, poor labelling, adulteration, lack of enforceable regulatory systems, low rainfall, low agronomic efficiency.
  •  African soils are highly variable – they respond to inputs in radically different ways. Crops on poor sandy soils with low clay/soil organic matter content, for example, respond poorly to mineral fertilizer applications. This means that fertilizer focused programmes are inappropriate in large areas of the continent, unless complementary biological measures are taken.
  •  Home fields, gardens and old settlement sites respond better to mineral fertilizers, as soil organic matter has built up over time. Distinct variations in input responsiveness can be seen across and between farms. Application of inorganic fertilizer makes sense in some farms – and parts of farms – but not in others.
  •  Micro-nutrient deficiencies (e.g. Zn) may be as important as N, P, K and S. Getting the right composition, based on local soil testing and blend management, may result in major increases in production.
  •  Increasing the agronomic efficiency (i.e. the marginal increase in production per unit of input) of inorganic fertilizer use requires a) soil moisture, b) organic matter/clay fraction, c) efficient application. Measures to deal with water control and soil structure/organic content, take time and long-term investment. Efficient application can be enhanced through ‘micro-dosing’ – applying small amounts to plants in ways that maximises nutrient uptake.

A critical lesson from all this work is that a highly context-specific approach is required that takes into account the fertility status of the soil, the availability of organic inputs and the ability to access and pay for mineral fertilizers. Making soil fertilisation pay also depends on output markets and the value of farm products. This varies enormously across Africa, within regions and even within villages and fields.

As discussed in the opening blog in this series, simple diagnoses based on generalised country or region-wide estimates of ‘land degradation’ or ‘soil mining’, based on often wildly inconsistent extrapolations from micro-data, are often rather meaningless. While the narrative of a seemingly universal soil depletion may raise the profile of the issue, the prescriptions that sometimes follow are often inappropriate. Simplistic accounting approaches based on ‘nutrient balances’ do not do justice to the complex soil biology and chemistry, and site-specific dynamics, that affect soil fertility problems in different places.

This is not to say that soil nutrient deficits are not a problem. They are; and often are the major constraint to production, particularly in relatively wetter agro-ecosystems in Africa. Identifying where these challenges lie is an important task, but one that requires site-specific diagnostic techniques, with participatory field assessment tools showing much promise.

However, just adding nutrients is not enough. Given resource constraints – of both fertility inputs, labour and cash – maximising the agro-economic efficiency of input use must be a critical objective of any soil fertility management strategy. Without such an approach at the heart of any programme, resources will be wasted and the much needed production boosts will be inadequate.

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



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Homefields and outfields: different sites, different response to soil management

There is a long and distinguished history of soils research in Zimbabwe, led by the Department of Research and Specialist Services and the University of Zimbabwe (see a review of some of this in the Zimbabwe chapter of the Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa book (download here). We know an enormous amount about soils of different types and their responsiveness to different combinations of inputs. This is vital information to support the post-settlement agrarian reform programme, but is barely used.

Farmers who gained land in 2000 have often profited from a short window of high soil fertility on land clearance, but now the soils need more intensive management. But there is no available soil testing service, no extension support, and they are having to find their own way, often in challenging circumstances where input supplies are variable (and politicised), and availability of manure and other biomass is limited.

The basic challenges are best illustrated by a dramatic graph based on long-term research at Harare research station. The decline of soil fertility and so yields on land clearance is massive and quick, and the ability to increase responses due to input application is important but marginal.


These data are from rich Highveld red soils, and the pattern will be different in the majority of sandy or sandy loam soils elsewhere, where loss of organic matter is often more sudden, and very difficult to reverse. Many soils in the communal areas where cultivation has been continuous for over a century are essentially silica based substrates, with little inherent fertility or organic matter and so very poor structure. This is farming as hydroponics, where water and nutrients must be held in the substrate for the period that plants need it. This requires careful soil water and nutrient conservation efforts, ones that are quite different to those needed in other, richer soils.

This highlights the contrast between ‘outfield’ crop farming (often on very poor, sandy soils) and ‘homefields’ or gardens, where soils are richer, and improved by organic matter additions and careful cultivation. These two systems are quite distinct, and managed separately with different levels of attention and inputs. Sociologically they are distinct too, with homefields and gardens often the domain of women, while outfields being farmed by men (although of course this is not universally the case). There are therefore often intrahousehold disputes over where valued inputs – labour, manure, compost, fertiliser – are placed, reflecting this gendered differentiation of farming.

The garden/homefield vs outfield distinction is important for designing interventions, as there are quite different priorities in each, both technically and socio-economically. This is often forgotten. The rise of ‘conservation agriculture’ as a panacea to Zimbabwe’s agricultural challenges has meant a massive focus on digging pits in fields, supported by numerous NGOs and development agencies. But too often the key distinction has not been acknowledged, and problems emerged. Conservation agriculture (pit digging, with focused application of feritliser) is a gardening technique and highly suitable for small areas – indeed versions of it have long been applied before the development agencies arrived. It makes sense to limit application, focus water and nutrients, and manage individual plants intensively when working in a garden (even I do it in my own allotment in Brighton). But when agencies try to get people to do it in a whole field over a large area it is not surprising that it doesn’t work, and is widely resented (‘dig and die’ is the local term). People may temporarily comply to get the inputs, or as part of social pressure, but in the long term such efforts are not going to have an impact. This is why a differentiated response is essential.

In next week’s blog I will discuss some of the lessons from the extensive scientific and technical work that has been carried out in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, and draw some implications for the design of interventions. 

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

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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


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