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How to prevent a "dust bowl" Africa

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted June 7, 2010

People and wild species are at more risk in Africa than on any other continent. Huge numbers of people are trying to subsist on hunting scarce animals and unsustainable slash-and-burn farming. If this continues it will undoubtedly trigger a Dust Bowl like that of the American Midwest in the 1930s along with massive famine.  

The Midwest had a drought—but the real problem was that all of the nitrogen had been "farmed out" of the region's soils. The organic content of the soils had dropped sharply from pioneer days, leaving little root structure to hold the soils against wind and water. The Dust Bowl soils blew as far east as Washington D.C. startling the Congress into creating the U.S. Soil conservation Service.

One of the world's top soil scientists is now warning that, without more chemical fertilizer, a similar fate could befall Africa. Pedro Sanchez, of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says Africa's traditional "bush fallow" farming system is unsustainable at today's higher population densities. The "rest periods" for the soil have gotten too short to restore the soil nutrients. There are few livestock and, therefore, little manure. Each season the farmers' yields decline further, triggering the plowing of more land to feed more people.

Sanchez praises a government program in Malawi that permits farmers to buy small amounts of N fertilizer and improved seeds at a discount, with the government paying the difference. In 2005, Malawi's corn harvest had been only half what was needed. Yields were below a ton per hectare. In 2006, farmers armed with fertilizer and better seeds doubled their yields and produced a small surplus. By 2007, yields almost tripled, up from 0.8 tons to 2.2 tons per acre.

The high-yielding seeds are already available from regional research centers and Norman Borlaug's Mexican plant-breeding center. Can a fertilizer and improved seed boost triple African crop yields and free the continent from its  hunger/soil trap—before it becomes a "Dust Bowl"?

Africa has tried fertilizer subsidies before, but the governments too soon ran out of cash. It worked, however, in India, where chemical fertilizer and the Green Revolution's high-yield rice and wheat seeds tripled national yields in little more than a decade. That led to more stable government, better roads, more investment—and India's Asian Tiger economy. A radical drop in birth rates followed, along with huge gains in India's incomes and health. The fertilizer subsidy probably got too big and went on too long, but, compared to Africa, it's hard to argue with the fabulous long-term results..

Sanchez says ten African countries are now trying to triple their yields by emulating Malawi's progress—backed by promises of $20 billion in funding from the G8, including the United States.

If the aid donors honor their commitments, Africa might be able to break out of its unsustainable low-yield farming pattern. Roads will be built, to bring in the fertilizer and then export white corn to African countries that didn't get rain that year. Surplus food would fund off-farm jobs and economic growth. A virtuous circle may start, as it did in India.

Organic enthusiasts claim their cover crops could provide all the nitrogen needed for expanded African food production—but their key report overstated the nitrogen available from green manure crops by threefold. Africa can't afford more land in low-yield crops.

America's "summit" fertilizer commitment to Africa is one that must be kept. ESR 

Report noted:  Catherine Badgley et al. "Can Organic Farming Feed the World" Renewable Ag & Food Systems; July 2007.

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, is an environmental economist.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net

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