International Symposium in Johannesburg Will Highlight the Role of Soil as the Solution to Food Security and Climate Stability

It all started over lunch during the COP 23 Climate Summit in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017. An idea shared over lunch led to a few back-and-forth emails—and here we are: announcing the “4 per1000 Africa Symposium on Soil for Food Security and Climate.” The Symposium will be held October 24-26 (2018), in Johannesburg, South Africa.

During its third meeting, held in Bonn, the Consortium (governing body) of the French government’s “4 per 1000: Soils for Food Security and Climate” Initiative met to discuss next steps, or as they referred to it, their “Roadmap 2018.” (Never heard of the 4 per 1000 Initiative? Learn more here.) Consortium members highlighted the need to organize regional networks that could draw attention to the global policy initiative, and pressure policymakers to incorporate the initiative’s climate solution into their overall strategy for meeting the goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement.

That’s when I, representing Regeneration International (RI), suggested that we find allies to host an African “4 per 1000” symposium—and now that suggestion has become a reality. We are about to spread the news, to a wide audience in South Africa, about the great potential of regenerative agriculture and land management to heal South Africa’s soils, increase food security in the region, and restore climate stability.

It’s been important for RI to find a platform to bring together players in soil health, food security and climate health. However we also realize the importance and power of partnerships. That’s why we’re thrilled and honored to be organizing this symposium in partnership with the South Africa-based NEPAD Agency, through its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), and France’s The 4/1000 Initiative. The timing is perfect for partnering with the NEPAD Agency’s programs—the partnership anchors RI within the CAADP framework which African governments, under the African Union, have signed onto to promote and mainstream the concept of agro-ecological organic regenerative agriculture.

This symposium is much needed at this time, when South Africa, and all of the global south, faces a series of crises. Landscapes are deteriorating every day due to poor management decisions. Year after year, we see a continuous downward spiraling in food security, wildlife habitat, healthy societies and livelihoods.

Small-scale food producers are especially vulnerable to climate disruption, including droughts and flooding. In the restoration of soil carbon, we see tremendous opportunity to build resilience and to not only mitigate, but eventually reverse global warming. What a better way to regenerate both the environment and societies in a continent where agriculture still holds a high place of importance?

The soil is a true ally on the climate crisis front, and Africa has potential to play a big role in this solution journey. Transitioning to regenerative agriculture and land management can help countries fulfill their pledges to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) while nourishing the earth and their populations.

The “4 per1000 Africa Symposium on Soil for Food Security and Climate” will be the first event in South Africa dedicated to communicating the message and strategy behind the “4 per 1000” Initiative. The symposium will bring international stakeholders together with international experts and practitioners to engage in an open debate and to share experiences and lessons on the relationship between soil and climate and the benefits of soil health in supporting all forms of life.

Participants will also have the opportunity to learn more about the work and initiatives that are taking place in Africa, including CADDP and African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), to name a few. We hope the symposium will help build strong support for the “4 per 1000” Initiative and the concept of regenerative agriculture in general.

The symposium is funded in part by RI, NEPAD, the 4 per 1000 Initiative, the German and French governments and registration fees.

Precious Phiri is a member of the Regeneration International (RI) steering committee and also serves as RI’s Africa coordinator. She is the director of IGugu Trust and founding director of EarthWisdom Consulting Co. To keep up with RI news, sign up here for our newsletter.

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Bags Gold Award for Greening Its Drylands

Author: Alex Whiting | Published: August 22, 2017

Tigray has managed to improve soil and water conservation, and closed off 1.2 mln hectares of land to allow plants to regrow

ROME, Aug 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A major project to restore land in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region to boost millions of people’s ability to grow food won gold on Tuesday in a U.N.-backed award for the world’s best policies to combat desertification and improve fertility of drylands.

Tigray’s drylands, home to more than 4.3 million people, are being restored on a massive scale, said the World Future Council, a foundation which organised the award together with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The Tigray government has mobilised villagers to volunteer 20 days a year to build terraces, irrigation projects, build stone walls on mountains and hillsides, and other projects.

As a result, groundwater levels have risen, soil erosion has reduced, and people’s ability to grow food and gain an income has improved, the council said.

“Ethiopia’s Tigray region shows that restoration of degraded land can be a reality … The model provides hope for other African countries to follow suit,” Alexandra Wandel, director of the World Future Council, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Drylands, which cover nearly 40 percent of the Earth’s land, are particularly vulnerable to losing fertility through changes in climate and poor land use such as deforestation or overgrazing, the UNCCD said.

“Hundreds of millions of people are directly threatened by land degradation, and climate change is only going to intensify the problem,” Monique Barbut, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and UNCCD executive secretary said in a statement.

“So far, this underestimated environmental disaster has received far too little attention.”

Ethiopia’s Tigray region has, however, since 1991 managed to improve soil and water conservation, and closed off 1.2 million hectares of land to allow plants to regrow.

“The Tigray region of Ethiopia is now greener than it has ever been during the last 145 years,” said Chris Reij, desertification expert at the World Resources Institute.

“This is not due to an increase in rainfall, but due to human investment in restoring degraded land to productivity.”

Over about 15 years, men, women and children moved at least 90 million tonnes of soil and rock by hand to restore their landscapes on about 1 million hectares, Reij said.

“In the process many communities have overcome the impacts of climate change,” he said.


Africa’s No-Till Revolution

Author: Mike Wilson | Published: February 3, 2015

Sustainable, integrated cropping systems are boosting yields and building food security for smallholder African farmers

In a quiet rural corner of Ghana, near the humble village of Amanchia near Kumasi, Dr. Kofi Boa goes about revolutionizing food production in Africa, one farmer at a time.

“It is my dream that the whole of Africa will know how to sustain the productivity of a piece of land,” says Boa, speaking to a group of seed growers who have flown in from several countries to learn his techniques at the No-Till Centre he opened here two years ago. The Centre is supported by a partnership between John Deere, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and DuPont Pioneer.

In Ghana, where agriculture makes up 60% of GDP and accounts for over a third of all employment, Dr. Boa is something of a hero. One by one he is showing farmers how traditional ‘slash-and-burn‘ methods lead to extreme erosion and poor yields that have kept them impoverished for decades.

Instead, Boa shows farmers how a sustainable system focusing on no-till, cover crop mulch and intercropping can lift them out of self-sustenance and inject new income streams to the poorest of families.

Slash-and-burn farming today is used by upwards of 500 million farmers worldwide. With slash-and-burn farming, says Boa, many smallholder farmers could not get enough production from their farms to afford even the basics, like sending their kids to high school, which costs real money in Ghana. But with no other options and limited education, many farmers just continued the same old techniques.

Until now.


Improving Africa’s Soils to Cut Emissions and Boost Food Security

Authors: Keith Shepherd and Rolf Sommer | Published: August 2nd, 2017 

How we manage soils is crucial to tackling climate change. Today is Earth Overshoot Day, which aims to highlight the moment each year when our use of the planet’s resources tips into “overdraft”. The day helps to highlight why restoring landscapes, particularly soils, has benefits for food security, livelihoods and the climate.

The top metre of soils around the world contains about three times as much carbon as in our entire atmosphere. This means that soils can be a double-edged sword for tackling climate change.

Land-use change and degradation, such as clearing land for farming, releases the carbon bound up in soils, adding to the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere. On the other hand, managing soils carefully and restoring their fertility means they can take up more carbon, helping to mitigate our CO2 emissions and thereby limiting climate change.

In a recent comment article in Nature, leading climate scientists identified achieving zero emissions from land-use changes and deforestation as one of six milestones that must be met within the next three years if we are to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

Restoring degraded lands is one promising option. For example, the 4 parts per 1000initiative (“4p1000”) aims to increase the carbon stored in the world’s soils by 0.4% per year in order to sequester the human-caused CO2 emissions that aren’t already absorbed by the land or oceans.

Recent analysis shows that 25-50% of this target (equivalent to 0.9-1.85bn tonnes of carbon per year) could be achieved on the 16 million square kilometres of suitable farmland across the world. This would sequester about 6-13% of all CO2 emissions from human activity.

Our research has identified several relatively simple, low-cost options for restoring African landscapes to help cut emissions from soils and even turn them into carbon sinks.

Here are three that are key to reaching zero emissions from land:

Soil and water conservation

Water is essential for productive soils, but it can also be disastrous. Heavy rainfall events – likely to become more intense as the climate warms – washes soil off the land, particularly hillsides or in areas with highly erodible soil types. This strips the land of its nutrients, reduces agricultural productivity, and clogs waterways and reservoirs, thus increasing costs for purifying drinking water.


Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘looming Crisis’ Across Africa

Author: Jeffrey Gettleman | Published: July 29, 2017 

The two elders, wearing weather-beaten cowboy hats with the strings cinched under their chins, stood at the edge of an empty farm, covering their mouths in disbelief.

Their homes — neat wooden cabins — had been smashed open. All their cattle had been stolen. So had their chickens. House after house stood vacant, without another soul around. It was as if some huge force had barreled into the village and swept away all the life.

Sioyia Lesinko Lekisio, one of the elders, had no doubts who did this. Swarms of herders from another county had invaded, attacking any farm or cattle ranch in their path, big or small, stealing livestock, ransacking homes and shooting people with high-powered assault rifles.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “They want our land.”

Kenya has a land problem. Africa itself has a land problem. The continent seems so vast and the land so open. The awesome sense of space is an inextricable part of the beauty here — the unadulterated vistas, the endless land. But in a way, that is an illusion. 

Population swells, climate change, soil degradation, erosion, poaching, global food prices and even the benefits of affluence are exerting incredible pressure on African land. They are fueling conflicts across the continent, from Nigeria in the west to Kenya in the east — including here in Laikipia, a wildlife haven and one of Kenya’s most beautiful areas.


Large groups of people are on the move, desperate for usable land. Data from NASA satellites reveals an overwhelming degradation of agricultural land throughout Africa, with one recent study showing that more than 40 million Africans are trying to survive off land whose agricultural potential is declining.

At the same time, high birthrates and lengthening life spans mean that by the end of this century, there could be as many as four billion people on the continent, about 10 times the population 40 years ago.

It is a two-headed problem, scientists and activists say, and it could be one of the gravest challenges Africa faces: The quality of farmland in many areas is getting worse, and the number of people squeezed onto that land is rising fast.

“It’s a looming crisis,” said Odenda Lumumba, head of the Kenya Land Alliance, a group that works on land reform. “We are basically reaching the end of the road.”

More than in any other region of the world, people in Africa live off the land. There are relatively few industrial or service jobs here. Seventy percent of Africa’s population makes a living through agriculture, higher than on any other continent, the World Bank says.


But as the population rises, with more siblings competing for their share of the family farm, the slices are getting thinner. In many parts of Africa, average farm size is just an acre or two, and after repeated divisions of the same property, some people are left trying to subsist on a sliver of a farm that is not much bigger than a tennis court.

A changing climate makes things even harder. Scientists say large stretches of Africa are drying up, and they predict more desertification, more drought and more hunger. In a bad year, maybe one country in Africa will be hit by famine. This year, famine is stalking three, pushing more than 10 million people in Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan to the brink of starvation.

But much of Africa’s farmland is in danger for another, perhaps simpler, reason: overuse. Fast-growing populations mean that many African families can’t afford to let land sit fallow and replenish. They have to take every inch of their land and farm or graze it constantly. This steadily lowers the levels of organic matter in the soil, making it difficult to grow crops.

In many areas, the soil is so dried out and exhausted that there is little solace even when the prayed-for rains finally come. The ground is as hard as concrete and the rain just splashes off, like a hose spraying a driveway.

“There are going to be some serious food-security issues,” said Zachary Donnenfeld, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. “More and more countries will be reliant on food imports. You’ll increasingly see the international community come into more rescue-type situations.”

The fact that several of Africa’s biggest economies have grown impressively in the past 10 years may seem like an answer, but analysts say the newfound affluence may actually compound these pressures.

As people gain wealth, they consume more — more energy, more water and usually more meat, all of which intensify the pressures on the environment. In Kenya, a piece of meat is one of the first things people treat themselves to when they get a little extra cash, and as the nation’s economy grows, so does the taste for beef. Cows have always been a traditional form of wealth; now they’re big business. In the past 15 years, the number of cows in Kenya has shot up by more than 60 percent to around 20 million, driving a scramble for grazing lands.

Some parts of Kenya are now so overgrazed by cows and goats that all the grass roots have been eaten, leaving large stretches of bare earth, as measured by NASA satellite imagery that tracks net levels of carbon dioxide absorption. Herders from bare-earth zones in Kenya are often the ones invading ranches.

Private investors are tramping in as well. Since the 1990-2005 period, global food prices have increased by 50 to 75 percent. Many foreign companies and local businesspeople have speculated that despite soil degradation, African farmland is destined to become more valuable. Small landholders across the continent are increasingly getting priced out or even evicted to make way for big commercial farms. This has led to conflict even in usually peaceful places, like Malawi, where a land-defense movement recently started to fight back against foreign-owned tea plantations.


The High Price of Desertification: 23 Hectares of Land a Minute

Author: Busani Bafana | Published: June 15, 2017 

Urban farmer Margaret Gauti Mpofu would do anything to protect the productivity of her land. Healthy soil means she is assured of harvest and enough food and income to look after her family.

Each morning, Mpofu, 54, treks to her 5,000-square-metre plot in Hyde Park, about 20 km west of the city of Bulawayo. With a 20-litre plastic bucket filled with cow manure in hand, Mpofu expertly scoops the compost and sprinkles a handful besides thriving leaf vegetables and onions planted in rows across the length of the field, which is irrigated with treated waste water.

“I should not be doing this,” Mpofu tells IPS pointing to furrows on her field left by floodwater running down the slope during irrigation. “The soil is losing fertility each time we irrigate because the water flows fast, taking valuable topsoil with it. I have to constantly add manure to improve fertility in the soil and this also improves my yields.”

Mpofu’s act of feeding the land is minuscule in fighting the big problem of land degradation. But replicated by many farmers on a large scale, it can restore the productivity of arable land, today threatened by desertification and degradation.

While desertification does include the encroachment of sand dunes on productive land, unsustainable farming practices such as slash and burn methods in land clearing, incorrect irrigation, water erosion, overgrazing – which removes grass cover and erodes topsoil – as well as climate change are also major contributors to desertification.

Desertification is on the march.  Many people are going hungry because degraded lands affects agriculture, a key source of livelihood and food in much of Africa. More than 2.6 billion people live off agriculture in the world. More than half of agricultural land is affected by soil degradation, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

It gets worse. The UN body says 12 million hectares of arable land, enough to grow 20 tonnes of grain, are lost to drought and desertification annually, while 1.5 billion people are affected in over 100 countries. Halting land degradation has become an urgent global imperative.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that by 2030 Africa will lose two-thirds of its arable land if the march of desertification — the spread of arid, desert-like areas of land — is not stopped.


How Agroforestry Is Reshaping the Kenyan Countryside

Author: Steve Zwick | Published: February 2, 2017

Prisca Mayende still remembers the lush, tree-covered countryside of her youth, when the farms in this part of Kenya, about 50 kilometers from the Ugandan border, yielded consistent harvests – year-in and year-out – of sorghum, white corn, and the dark green, kale-like sukuma wiki. Then came the sugar boom, and its bitter consequences.

“They destroyed all the trees to plant sugar,” she recalls. “And that is where the problems started.”

First came the floods, because the trees weren’t there to stop them; then came the dry spells, perhaps because the trees weren’t there to draw in the rain. Finally, the soil stopped producing – as it had in North America during the Dust Bowl, and as it’s doing across Africa today – because the trees weren’t there to replenish the earth.

But then, in 2010, Mayende’s neighbors told her about a man on a motorcycle.

“He was just moving around, looking for those farmers who were in groups,” she recalls. “So, when he [asked] some of the communities, they said, ‘Mama Prisca is one of the farmers who is interested in doing the agroforest.’”

As a leader of the Naikai Community Water Project, she’d been working to coordinate water-use and well-drilling, but the man on the motorcycle asked if members of her group would be interested in planting trees – lots of them – in their cornfields and cabbage patches. It was a tough sale – but not for her.

“People really feared that, maybe, when there are trees on the farm, the production cannot be good,” says Mayende, adding: “But me, I like trees.”

So she took the plunge, and within three years her farm was covered in trees – some fruit-bearing varieties like mango and banana, but mostly varieties like sesbania, albizia, and grevillea – which provide fodder for her cow.

Soon, the birds returned, and today her corn, cabbages, and potatoes are thriving – largely because the trees helped revive the soil – and she’s not alone. All across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, small farmers are replenishing soil by planting trees on formerly sunbaked row-farms; while consumer-facing giants like Danone and Mars are beginning to accelerate the process by investing in programs that support sustainable agriculture.

“We have all forgotten that food starts in soils,” said Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber at 2015’s Paris climate talks – sounding more like a soil scientist than a businessman. “We have disconnected the food chain.”

To fix that, Danone spearheaded the creation of two separate Livelihoods Funds, which “create mutual value for smallholder farmers, businesses and society as a whole.”

In 2014, Danone took a 40% stake in Kenyan dairy group Brookside, which had built a nationwide network of collection facilities that gathered milk from more than 130,000 farmers. As Brookside grew, however, they noticed something unusual: in some parts of their territory, farmers brought in three liters per cow on a good day. In other parts, they brought in seven or more, and consistently.

Driving this, they found was agroforestry: those farmers who embraced the practice ended up delivering more milk than those who didn’t. And there was another benefit as well: those who adopted agroforestry spent more time on their farms and less in the forests.

“Most of them used to cut trees,” says Takin Arnold, who runs the cooperative. “But because of the market that Brookside has created, those farmers have left the cutting of trees and embarked on selling to Brookside.”


More Than a Buzzword? Resilience to Climate Change in Zimbabwe

Author: Tawanda Majoni | Published: January 6, 2016

Climate change-induced disasters will keep on coming, as sure as the sun rises. But rather than governments and aid agencies swinging into belated – often chaotic – action after they’ve struck, the smarter move is to strengthen communities by building their resistance ahead of time.

It’s cheaper, faster, and devolves more control to the affected communities. But while resilience has long been a buzzword among aid agencies and governments alike, it’s difficult to gauge yet how effective the measures have been.

Zimbabwe is a good place both to highlight the need to develop people’s resistance to “shocks” and to illustrate how difficult it is to put that idea into practice.

Agriculture is a key sector of the economy. It employs 60-70 percent of the population, contributes to about 40 percent of total export earnings, and, in a good year, covers the country’s cereal needs.

But Zimbabwean agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and therefore vulnerable to climate change-induced drought. An El Niño event in 2015 has produced two consecutive seasons of failed rains. The cumulative result is that more than four million people are in need of food aid over the next three months, until the 2017 harvest comes in.


How Cattle Can Fight Climate Change

Author: Alexander Lykins | Published: January 12, 2017

In Nouakchott, a town on the edge of the Sahara in the North African country of Mauritania, lives a woman named Nancy Abeiderrahmane. In 1989 she founded an organization called Tvivski (PDF) (spring in Arabic) to connects local milk producers in Mauritania with the consumers.

Abeiderrahmane created Tiviski out of frustrations over having to rely on expensive powdered European milk. Today Tiviski provides affordable, locally produced milk to Mauritanians. For the thousands of families who produce milk, the dairy provides a livelihood.

In Richard Toll, a small Senegalese town rich with cattle, a veterinarian by the name of Bagoré Bathily had a similar dream. He founded La Laiterie du Berger, French for “the herder’s dairy.”

Despite Senegal’s having nearly 4 million herders, until 2006 almost all of the milk consumed in the country was imported, powdered milk from Europe. Now La Laiterie du Berger produces over 650,000 liters of milk a year, providing a stable income and food supply to nearly 7,000 people.

In Keffi, Nigeria, a dairy farm with a similar mission of improving development through local agriculture is even more impressive. Nagari Integrated Dairy farm was founded by Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu, a former governor, in 1982. In contrast to the previous two farms, Nagari is reported to be one of the largest single integrated dairy farms in Africa, boasting over 37,000 cattle on nearly 3,000 acres. However, Nagari has a similar vision for their organization, in which indigenous ownership, equity and sustainability are key components.

All three dairies have improved food security in their local areas and created economic opportunities for thousands of citizens. All of these dairies cite sustainability within their supply chain as a priority, and all have taken steps to work towards and measure their goals. The good news is agricultural businesses such as these are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa, as locals become invested in combating food insecurity and international funds from companies such as Danone arrive to support these efforts.

These dairies have, however, a less obvious opportunity to take advantage of: the opportunity to help the planet. They have access to tens of thousands of acres of land. All that they need to implement true sustainability is to recognize that the secret to reversing the impact of climate change lies in the soil. A style of grazing, holistic management, uses grazing animals to repair soil health, increase carrying capacity, sequester carbon in the soil, increase its fertility and capacity to retain moisture.

All of these features can hold back deserts and roll back climate change.


Agriculture and Food Security — Where Are We Headed in 2017?

Author: Lisa Cornish  | Published: January 11, 2017 

As climate change impacts the global ability to grow food, both in quality and quantity, researchers in agriculture have become an important asset for establishing long-term food security as the world’s population continues to increase.

In December, agriculture and food security researchers visited Canberra for high-level discussions on development matters with the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And as 2017 will be an important year for establishing long-term goals and making important inroads into advances within the sector, Devex spoke with attendees to better understand where we are headed.

Crosscutting agriculture and food security across the SDGs

The adoption of the sustainable development goals has provided the agriculture and food security sector with a greater understanding of the development sector’s focus over the coming decades. According to Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR, the sector want to be involved more widely in development discussions and a focus in 2017 is establishing greater ties across all development issues.

“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals capture the challenges well,” Campbell told Devex. “Australia’s Foreign Minister [Julie Bishop] wants us to take leadership role within the Indo-Pacific region climate change mitigation and adaption and there are important links to the effects on food production. But gender, the empowerment of women and girls, is also important because there is clear evidence that creating equal opportunities for engagement based on gender, you get better outcomes — and we want to create opportunities through business or employment.”