Experts in southern Africa say the number of people threatened by food shortages in the region has doubled from 3.1 million in 2006 to over six million this year. They attribute the change to poor food production due to climatic changes. But they say tens of thousands of subsistence farmers can improve production with what they call conservation agriculture. From Lusaka, Zambia, Voice of America English to Africa reporter Danstan Kaunda filed this report.
Conservation agriculture minimizes soil depletion, uses more precise timing for planting and uses crop residue to retain moisture and enrich the soil. In drought areas, it also requires digging basins that capture rain water.
For years now, most farmers in the region have being using traditional methods, which have resulted in soil infertility and erosion. Scientists say the old ways have also contributed to global warming as the crop residues are burnt in open-air.
Over the past 50 years, overall soil fertility has dropped while erosion has increased in southern Africa. Heavy plowing and repeatedly growing the same crop on the same plot eventually strips the soil of nutrient-rich topsoil.
But conservation farming is being highly promoted as a way to increase agriculture yields and ensure food security.
Jim Belemu is with the UN humanitarian agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization. He says: “The problem that we are having now [in agriculture] is [related to] climatic changes. This has affected food production in the recent years. By the way - this is real. There are some areas with serious droughts while others are having repeatedly flooding. But with this [conservation method] we need to train people [farmers] as this method is simple and very basic.”
The methods that make up conservation farming are not new, but are not widely practiced by farmers.
One is to dig basins, or to create small furrows that capture water and nutrients. It’s the opposite of turning over the soil in an entire field, which leads to greater loss of moisture.
Farmers can also help fields retain moisture by using ground covers as mulch, which also helps minimize weeds. In contrast, farmers using conventional methods burn off the remains of the previous year’s crops.
Also, rather than planting at the first sign of rain, farmers are encouraged to dig basins filled with manure, fertilizer and rainwater before planting.
Lastly, farmers can “inter-crop,” or plant crops like cassava in between maize crops to help restore nutrients to the soil. Farmers are encouraged to rotate crops from year to year to retain soil quality – crops like maize and legumes.
Belemu says the FAO and NGOs are doing their best to spread the message throughout southern Africa,
“We [FAO] are receiving a positive response from the South African government to see how we can work together to support other SADC [regional] countries for a long time on this program. The main theme in this support is the training of conservation agriculture to the farmers.”
Farmers trained by the FAO and CARE International are provided with seeds and fertilizer.
Agriculturalists say the techniques used in conservation farming are inexpensive and practical.
A recent study by economist William Cline says African food production could decline by up to half by 2080. So the experts say conservation farming came into the spotlight at just the right time.