Knowledge for Development

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Soybean: the golden seed for wealth, health, and soil fertility

Against the backdrop of the mounting food insecurity, as a result of the drought ravaging eastern, central and southern Africa, scientists are urging farmers to cultivate, and the people, to incorporate the soybean into their local diets to improve nutrition, generate income for themselves, and also to improve soil fertility. The soybean has the potential to not only meet the nutritional needs of the people, but also put some much needed money in the pockets of farmers and substantially transform their lives. It contains 40 per cent protein, a level much higher than in any other food crop or even livestock. It is made up of 20 per cent oil, and contains all the eight essential amino acids, making it the healthiest legume crop. Unfortunately, the crop’s rich potential is not well exploited in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is mostly seen as a cash crop. (Source: Africa Awake, 18 September 2009)


Fertilizers may not help crops of poorest African farmers

Researchers have linked poverty in sub-Saharan Africa with poor soil health, but two new Cornell studies find that the recommended practice of applying more fertilizer may not help the poorest farmers. Two new studies by Chris Barrett, Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, and Paswel Marenya, Ph.D. '08, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, find flaws in the fertilizer-promotion strategy used by dozens of African countries to improve soil health, crop yields and the wealth of poor farmers. Forty African heads of state had devised plans in 2006 to help farmers in sub-Saharan Africa -- one of the poorest regions of the world where soils are often too degraded to reliably grow crops -- get better access to soil-enhancing fertilizers by improving roads, increasing access to seasonal credit and improving farmer education on fertilizer use. (Source: Cornell Chronicle, 24 September 2009)


Soil carbon could combat climate change

Adding organic carbon to the soil in the form of biochar is being put forward as one means of countering the effects of climate change. A team of research scientitsts at Edinburgh University is attempting to measure the environmental benefits of this type of charcoal and assess its potential as an enhancer of soil fertility. One of the researchers, Dr Saran Sohi, explained that most naturally-occurring carbon in the soil is lost into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when cultivation takes place. Soils contain over three times more carbon than the atmosphere and nearly five times more than plants and animals produce. They represent a significant source of greenhouse gases, but they also have the potential to store carbon if the right management is applied. If biochar is incorporated into farmland, it can increase the soil’s carbon content permanently and would establish a carbon store for atmospheric carbon dioxide, while increasing and maintaining soil fertility. (Source: Farmer’s Guardian, 20 November 2009)


Moderate fertilizer use could double African banana yields

A fertilizer-use study by researchers on East African highland bananas showed that moderate application of mineral fertilizers could double the production of the crop. However, the study also found that majority of the banana growers in the region does not use fertilizers, missing out on the opportunity to maximize their crop's food security and economic potentials. Over 70 million people in the East African highlands depend on banana as their primary source of food and income. The USAID-funded study carried out by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in nearly 200 farmer fields in Uganda showed that modest fertilizer use can significantly increase the crop's yield. (Source: ScienceDaily, 12 February 2010)  


New website to provide essential fertilizer information to farmers

Food insecurity in African countries is severely aggravated by a depletion of nutrients in the soil that leads to a decrease in soil productivity. A remedy to this problem is the increased use of fertilizers, yet many African farmers cannot afford or access this agricultural input that farmers on other continents have used in abundance to dramatically increase food production. A new website,, will be spreading vital information about fertilizers in Africa. (Source: All Africa, 11 March 2010)


Cassava mosaic still a threat

Cassava growing in Uganda and the entire region is facing a serious threat from the cassava brown streak disease. According to agriculture researchers who gathered at Entebbe, Uganda, for a three-day workshop, the prevalence of the disease has been widening by the day, ever since it was discovered in 2004. Cassava is one of the leading staple foods in Uganda. It is commonly grown in bulk in the areas of Lango, Acholi and West Nile, and Nakasongola in northern central region. Cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease affect the roots or tubers, the stem and the leaves. Reports indicate that the disease levels in farmers’ fields have also increased, from 17.5% to as high as 85.6% in 2005 and 2008. The population of whiteflies was correspondingly high in districts that were affected by the disease. (Source: The New Vision, 11 May 2010)


Kenya: Forum to seek ways to combat deadly wheat rust

Kenya will join a gathering of top wheat scientists at a conference in Russia to map out strategies for combating a new strain of the devastating wheat stem rust, Ug99. The reddish-brown, wind-borne fungus, which emerged in East Africa 10 years ago, is spreading across continents despite global efforts to eradicate it. Scientists estimate that 90% of the wheat varieties around the world lack sufficient resistance to the original strain of the evolving disease. Scientists from Australia, China, Iran, India, Egypt, the United States, Mexico, Kenya, Russia, Uruguay, South Africa, Canada, Denmark, and Ethiopia will present information on emerging strains of Ug99, some more virulent than the original, as well as news of the development and distribution of wheat that is resistant to the pathogen. The conference is planned for 30-31 May 2010in St Petersburg, Russia. (Source: All Africa, 17 May 2010)


Rising CO2 levels could reduce protein in crops

Increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere could reduce crops' protein content by 20%, according to scientists, who say that new fertilizers may be needed to counteract the effects. Researchers found that plants lose the ability to take up so much nitrate – the most common form of nitrogen in agricultural soils – and convert it into organic compounds, such as proteins, when growing in CO2-enriched environments. (Source:, 18 May 2010)


Scientists harness 'good' fungi to boost staple crops

Rice has been made to grow five times faster, and potatoes to require much less fertilizer, using a technique that introduces fungi to the roots of the crops. Ian Sanders, a biologist at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, said recent research has shown that the fungi can have a major impact on yield in the acidic soils of tropical regions. Sanders' team used traditional, non-GM approaches to breed fungi (Glomus intraradices) containing beneficial genes, and inoculated rice with them. So far, the results are promising: the same amount of potato can be grown with less than a third of the phosphate fertilizer normally applied. Field test results on cassava are expected within the next couple of years. (Source:, 15 June 2010)


Diminishing phosphorus threatens world's agriculture

Global food security could be seriously affected by diminishing levels of phosphorus in agricultural soils around the world, said scientists who have studied the flow of the mineral through soils and crops. Researchers analysed nine years of data on phosphorus flows in cereals and legumes worldwide. They found "significant imbalances" between the phosphorus going in and coming out of the soil — in many places, the amount of phosphorus available to plants is decreasing. (Source:, 28 May 2010) See also: Peak Phosphoros, Arno Rosemarin, Gert de Bruijne and Ian Caldwell, broker issue 15, August 2009. Phosphorus, a key component of fertilizers, is crucial for the world’s food supplies. But as reserves of phosphate begin to run out, the impacts are likely to be immense – in terms of rising food prices, growing food insecurity and widening inequalities between rich and poor countries.


Virulent new strains of Ug99 stem rust, a deadly wheat pathogen

Four new mutations of Ug99, a strain of a deadly wheat pathogen known as stem rust, have overcome existing sources of genetic resistance developed to safeguard the world's wheat crop. Leading wheat experts from Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, who are met in St. Petersburg, Russia for a global wheat event organized by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, said the evolving pathogen may pose an even greater threat to global wheat production than the original Ug99. The new "races" have acquired the ability to defeat two of the most important stem rust-resistant genes, which are widely used in most of the world's wheat breeding programs. (Source: ScienceDaily, 28 May 2010)


Prescribed burning helps managers avoid soil damage

Matt Busse, with the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW, Albany, USA), measured the soil-heat pulse when burning heavy concentrations of woody residues to determine the optimal soil moisture conditions needed to limit soil damage. The study funded by the Joint Fire Science Program and the National Fire Plan, revealed that soil-moisture content greater than 20 percent by volume effectively quenched the heat pulse in a wide variety of soils. From these findings, a predictive model was presented that allows fire. Results from the study were published in the May-June 2010 issue of the Soil Science Society of America Journal. View PDF (Source: Pacific Southwest Research Station, July 2010)


Ghana to host training of West African soil scientists

The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) has been selected to build a centre of excellence to oversee the training of soil scientists for the West African sub-region over the next five years. Twenty students from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria will be offered scholarships to undertake a four-year PhD programme at the university under the aegis of the Alliance for Green Revolution Africa (AGRA). They are expected to contribute to the achievement of an envisaged six percent growth in Africa’s food production by 2015 under the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP). (Source: African Agriculture, 19 September 2010)


The International Union of Soil Sciences

The International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS, Wageningen, The Netherlands) is the global union of soil scientists. The objectives of the IUSS are to promote all branches of soil science, and to support all soil scientists across the world in the pursuit of their activities. It publishes a bulletin and a newsletter.


Reduced pesticides usage does not affect yields

The West African Regional Integrated Production and Pest Management (IPPM) Programme, an international project promoting sustainable farming practices, executed by the FAO, has helped farmers cut the use of toxic pesticides and diversify farming systems to increase yields and incomes. Working in small groups, called Farmer Field Schools, smallholders are developing and adopting 'good agricultural practices' through learning-by-doing and hands-on field experiments. Around 100 000 farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal are participating in a community-driven training programme. To grow healthy crops, IPPM promotes soil improvement and alternatives to chemical pesticides such as the use of beneficial insects, adapted varieties, natural pesticides and cropping practices. Marketing and food safety issues are also part of the training programme.(Source: Africa Science News, 20 December 2010.)


Low fertilizer use drives deforestation in West Africa, imperils REDD implementation: Study

Low-input farming for cocoa, cassava and oil palm has resulted in widespread deforestation and degredation of West Africa’s tropical forest area, according to a new study by researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Researchers found that increasing fertilizer use on cocoa-timber farms would have spared roughly 2 million hectares of tropical forest from being cleared or severely degraded. The study suggests that farmers could have achieved the same outputs without rampant deforestation through the intensified use of fertilizer and agrochemicals coupled with improved crop husbandry.According to IITA, by doing so farmers would have doubled their incomes and helped to avoid deforestation and degradation on 2.1 million hectares and in the process, this would have generated a value of over 1,600 million dollars on 1.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions that would not have come from deforestation. To the authors, funding support for reducing carbon emissions due to deforestation and degradation (REDD) to mitigate climate change offers the potential of significant new public resources for needed investments in agricultural research and extension and market infrastructure to support the transformation of traditional agriculture in West Africa. They suggest a significant proportion of REDD+ funding should be used to increase the adoption level of fertilizer use in a ‘Fertilizers for forest’ mitigation program. (Source : IITA, 8 April 2011)


Mapping permeability over the surface of the Earth

University of British Columbia researchers have produced the first map of the world outlining the ease of fluid flow through the planet's porous surface rocks and sediments. The maps and data, published in Geophysical Research Letters (January 2011), could help improve water resource management and climate modelling, and eventually lead to new insights into a range of geological processes.Using recent world-wide lithology (rock type) results from researchers at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and Utrecht University (The Netherlands); the authors were able to map permeability across the globe to depths of approximately 100 metres. Typical permeability maps have only dealt with the top one to two metres of soil, and only across smaller areas. A better understanding of large scale permeability of rock and sediment is critical for water resource management. Groundwater represents approximately 99 % of the fresh, unfrozen water on earth. Groundwater also feeds surface water bodies and moistens the root zone of terrestrial plants.(Source: Science Daily, 25 Jan. 2011)


The case of fertiliser tree systems (FTS) in southern Africa

Researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre have traced the historical background and highlight the developmental phases and outcomes of fertiliser tree systems (FTS) in this synthesis paper. It shows that FTS are inexpensive technologies that significantly raise crop yields, reduce food insecurity and enhance environmental services and resilience of agro-ecologies. Many of the achievements recorded with FTS can be traced to some key factors: the availability of a suite of technological options that are appropriate in a range of different household and ecological circumstances, partnership between multiple institutions and disciplines in the development of the technology, active encouragement of farmer innovations in the adaptation process and proactive engagement of several consortia of partner institutions to scale up the technology in farming communities. It is recommended that smallholder farmers would benefit if rural development planners emphasize the merits of different fertility replenishment approaches and taking advantage of the synergy between FTS and mineral fertilizers rather than focusing on ‘organic vs. inorganic’ debates.(EurekAlert, 14/9/2011; BBC, 16/10/2011)


New soil carbon methodology gets international approval

Farmers in western Kenya experience the dire effects of climate change, through drought and the decline of soil fertility which seriously threaten their livelihoods. A methodology and approach on soil carbon, for sustainable agricultural land management (SALM) practices approved by Verified Carbon Standard and developed by the World Bank for the Smallholder Agriculture Carbon Finance project run by the non-governmental organisation Vi Agroforestry in western Kenya has been recognised internationally. The methodology encourages smallholder farmers in Kenya – and potentially worldwide – to adopt improved farming techniques, boost productivity, increase their resilience to climate change, and earn carbon credits. The pilot, involving more than 60,000 smallholders who are farming 45,000 hectares of land, is run together with smallholder farmers and supported by the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund. (Worldbank, 30/01/2012)


The key to tackling hunger in Africa is enriching its soil

This news report by Nature explains the importance of fertilizers in keeping Africa’s soils nourished and the action taken by decision-makers. Fertilizers make a profound difference because the rusty red soil, as in many parts of Africa, is deficient in organic matter and in key nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. African governments, international donors and scientists agree that farmers must revitalize their soils, but don’t on the best way to tackle the challenge. Many African governments and agricultural scientists argue that large doses of inorganic fertilizers are the most practical solution. But others are pushing for greener, cheaper solutions, such as no-till farming that conserves soil and 'fertilizer plants' that boost the soil's nitrogen content organically. Researchers report that these latter techniques are beginning to raise yields and improve soil fertility. But farmers are slow to adopt such practices, which require significantly more labour. The report gives an extensive overview of the latest efforts in soil conservation and examines governments and NGOs answers to the problem. (Nature, 29/03/2012)