Africa: How Reviving Old Crops Is the Key to Saving Africa’s Degraded Soils

Fertile soils are the key to meeting the world’s exploding demand for food. With Africa set to become the most populous continent by the end of the century, repairing degraded and eroded soils on the continent is ever urgent, says US Special Envoy for Food Security Cary Fowler.

RFI: A year ago, the US launched the Vision for Suitable Crops and Soils (Vacs) programme, which promotes a return to traditional crops. What is it about?

Cary Fowler: It aims to do work in the two most fundamental aspects of food security: crops and soils. If you want to have food security and you want to have it be sustainable, you have to ensure you’ve got good, fertile soils and you have crops that are adapted to climate change.

That’s not what we have today in Africa, which is the continent that’s most in need. It will also be the most highly populated continent by the end of the century. African soils are among the poorest in the world, highly degraded and eroded.

RFI: Why is that?

CF: It’s the result of a number of things such as poor soil structure and farming methods that don’t tend to keep the soil in place. If you have that kind of rate of soil erosion and degradation, you’re not building a sustainable, productive agricultural system for the long run.

Africa has many traditional and indigenous crops that are highly nutritious. That could be used to really improve the nutrition and the health of Africans.

Today 40 percent of the world’s population cannot afford a healthy diet. In Africa that’s 80 percent. Yet you have marvellous indigenous crops that are very rich in qualities like iron. Fonio, a millet that’s grown in West Africa, has 10 times more iron than maize does, for example.

If we could increase the productivity of these crops, and integrate them more fully into the African diet, we could deal with issues like childhood stunting.

RFI: Fifty years ago, the World Bank and the IMF pushed African countries to cultivate monocrops for export. What changed?

CF: We’ve all realised, and certainly the African countries themselves have realised, that we need to promote more production of agricultural products – but in a way that’s more resilient. And resilience really doesn’t come from focusing on one crop to the exclusion of all the others.

We’re not saying that farmers should not be growing some of the staple crops that they’re growing today; we are saying that we should add to that food basket – particularly with legumes and essential vegetables and fruits – if we’re going to to combat the really horrific rates of childhood stunting.

They’ll be physically and mentally stunted for the rest of their lives and you can’t develop a society with that kind of handicap.

RFI: How will the Vacs programme work?

CF: A number of African scientists have been trained and work for national agricultural research programmes on these particular crops. We want to give them the kind of support to do the plant breeding necessary to increase production, decrease pest and disease problems.

RFI: You are talking about crossover. Do you mean genetically modified plants?

CF: Probably not, because most of the countries in Africa don’t allow that. It’s an expensive way of going about it. I think the approach that will mostly be used will be traditional plant breeding, as it has been over the centuries.

RFI: Does this mean that farmers will have to buy the seeds?

CF: There are going to be a number of different avenues for farmers to access these types of seeds. I think non-government organisations are going to be involved. In some of those cases, the seeds will be provided for free.

Maybe the farmers will be asked to save a certain portion of their seeds, not just for replanting the next year, but for sharing back to the programme so they can be distributed to other farmers.

There might be some small and medium-sized seed enterprises that will sell the seeds.

One thing we want to do is improve the value chain work for this so that there’s a better market that allows these types of nutritious crops to go into school lunch feeding programmes, for example, and in the processing industries. If we build up that kind of market and market demand, that will encourage the farmers to grow them.

RFI: How will you convince these farmers to grow traditional plants, after decades of monoculture?

CF: The interesting thing is the farmers never abandoned these crops in the first place, so they’ve been grown for 10,000 years there.

They must have been doing something right. Interestingly, most of these crops are tended by women, so they don’t show up a lot in the statistics because they’re home garden crops.

We just want to make them more productive so they can compete in the marketplace and get their rightful share in the diet.

RFI: It’s been a year since the program was launched. What sort of reactions have you had?

CF: The response is really good. The International Fund for Agricultural Development has set up a funding platform for this.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has said they want to mainstream this approach. We’ve gotten funding through Japan, the Netherlands, UK, Norway.

So we’re here to talk to the French officials about that. And we need both political, financial and technical support. France has research institutions that are really world class and that could help in this regard.

You need political support. What do the African countries you have approached say?

The African Union itself has said that there’s been massive underinvestment in these crops. So there’s already a lot of overall political support.

I think many of the African countries realise that given their severe problems, particularly with childhood stunting and nutrition in general, something needs to change.

They have the foundation for that change right there in their countries, in these traditional crops. So there’s a lot of support for this type of initiative.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

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