African Union's plan on fertilisers a recipe for disaster

Fertiliser. [iStockphoto]

A proposed action plan by the African Union (AU) that aims to significantly increase investments in domestic manufacturing of fertilisers and triple their use across the continent over the next 10 years is a recipe for disaster.

This outdated, synthetic fertiliser-focused approach will further debase already degraded soils, undermine food security and harm public health and the environment.

The AU and the Kenyan government will host a summit on fertilisers and soil health in Nairobi from tomorrow. The AU’s Fertiliser and Soil Health Action Plan for 2023-2033 claims it will “stimulate sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture”. However, the plan marginalises truly sustainable approaches like agroecology in favour of increasing use of imported synthetic fertilisers.

The plan also fails to consider other perspectives. Civil society groups, such as those coalescing around the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), for instance, need to be involved in the fertiliser and soil health debate. They offer perspectives that challenge narratives that threaten seed diversity, and they push back against the current agenda of putting yields above public health and the environment.

Studies have shown that over 20 per cent of agricultural land in most African countries is already degraded, affecting over 65 per cent of the population and resulting in significant adverse effects on food production and livelihoods. The soils have lost critical organic matter and nutrients, with some areas so depleted the soil is capped like concrete.

The solution is not more of the same thing – synthetic fertilisers – that have ruined our soils. Rather than continuing dependency on imported fertilisers, AFSA and its members – who represent people across Africa, including smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and women’s and youth groups – are championing a shift to agroecological farming methods that combine indigenous knowledge with modern scientific innovations.

Agroecology focuses on restoring biodiversity, conserving water, building healthy soils and increasing resilience to climate change. Policymakers, governments and donors should provide more funding to these agroecological options, because they address malnutrition, climate change and the drain of expensive fertilisers. While the AU’s commitment to reversing soil degradation and addressing hunger, malnutrition and poverty is commendable, its plan will exacerbate economic strains by increasing dependency on expensive imported fertilisers, enriching a handful of fertiliser firms while farmers face soaring costs.

The solution to Africa’s food insecurity, degraded soils and deteriorating health caused by synthetic inputs is to transition to agroecology. As AFSA has said, replacing imported synthetic fertilisers with domestically produced biofertilisers is the sustainable way. Agroecology has enormous potential to sustainably increase food security and sovereignty, reducing poverty and hunger while conserving biodiversity.

Covid-19 and its after-effects, the ongoing war in Ukraine and other threats to the movement of food across the globe, have taught us that we need homegrown solutions. By investing in agroecological research, extension services and participatory methods that engage farmers, African nations can take this crisis as an opportunity to transition away from dependency on imported fertilisers.

Governments must listen to their citizens and embrace sustainable farming rooted in indigenous wisdom. Restoring degraded lands across Africa is an immense challenge. But continuing down the ruinous path of synthetic fertilisers is a dead end, depleting soils further while benefitting corporations at the expense of farmers. It’s time to nourish the soils that nurture communities.

-Ms Maina is the National Coordinator, Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya

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