As previously discussed in past blog posts there is a significant probability that food shortages will affect a number of countries in the near future, especially those in Africa. Unfortunately these shortages can only be supplemented through proceeds from other countries for a limited time. Therefore, it is important to identify strategies that can be implemented in these countries in order to develop a more productive agriculture infrastructure to lessen dependency on others. Although the countries that need help are not limited to those in Africa, the focus of this post will be on Africa.
The conclusion that agriculture in Africa needs to be improved is not surprising, for humanitarians and scholars have considered the questions of how to increase the productivity of African agriculture for decades. First things first, Africa has the highest population percentage engaged in agriculture and has the second-largest area of cultivable land of all seven continents.1 Therefore, it is unreasonable to suggest that Africa lacks the inherent capacity to produce self-sustaining yields. Unfortunately Sub-Saharan African countries have grain yields per hectare significantly lower than the averages in both Northern African countries and more developed countries1 largely attributed to missing the Green Revolution. To combat these low yields, two options have emerged from theory and the literature as the top candidates for facilitating a green revolution in Africa. Both options have unique strengths and weaknesses, have backing by significant powerbrokers and are currently being tested in the isolated environments throughout Africa.
To review the Green Revolution involved the utilization of high yield variety seed which was genetically selected to possess larger product/fruit (greater mass/yield per hectare), faster growth and day-night neutrality. To achieve this selection, the seeds were cultivated to respond to fertilizers due to higher levels of exposure to nitrogen and phosphate in order to produce additional mass. The faster growth in these seeds was predicated through increased rates of photosynthesis due to the higher mass. However, the rate of photosynthesis also required additional water for sole reliance on rain would regionalize increased growth rates wasting a significant amount of growth potential, thus irrigation levels was increased. In short the Green Revolution involved new seed, higher yields, new irrigation strategies and lots of fertilizer.
The first option for improving African agriculture is the strategy put forth by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Millennium Project, which seeks to initiate a green revolution in Africa through means similar to previous green revolutions. That is to introduce higher quality seed and fertilizer to African farmers in order to provide the same technological and chemical advantages utilized by farmers in more developed nations. In addition to these advances, AGRA also focuses on encouraging farmers to form cooperatives amongst themselves to increase their buying power as well as to develop a cohesive strategy for land management to maintain soil quality. The original large-scale test for the AGRA is the Sauri Cluster where newly provided access to seed and fertilizer lead to the revival of previously resource depleted soils as well as a 50% expansion of cultivated land all resulting in a 300% increase in maize production.2
The Sauri Cluster was selected as a representative of the general African condition, in order to develop a general model to identify points of success and failure for future reference, although it could be argued that the Sauri Cluster has a higher than average soil quality. The Sauri Cluster is located in western Kenya consisting of 11 villages and covering an area of approximately 8 square km.2 It was determined that this region had a strong community system, but did not have the economic infrastructure to provide basic services for necessary growth. In fact it was estimated that 60-70% of the 55,000 individuals living in this region live on less than $1 per day.2 Agriculture is the primary source of employment and capital acquisition in the region, yet a significant number of individuals are still hungry.
In addition to the large jump in maize yield, the AGRA has also had initial success establishing a baseline of credit for farmers through micro-loans to previously identified high-risk loan candidates. The release of this capital has allowed farmers to not only purchase higher quality seed, but also invest in their own farms to improve production. Also the AGRA is creating logistical avenues to document and measure successes vs. failures in policy and what can be done to reinforce the positive outcomes and rectify the detrimental outcomes. This new documentation and recording strategy is important when considering the shear size of the required changes in the African agriculture structure within a number of countries.2
There are those that have criticized the AGRA strategy on the basis that it is incorrect to assume inadequacy in the less chemical and labor-intensive agricultural methodology, which has been practiced by African farmers from centuries. Farmers used to generate enough food for themselves in Africa in the past,1 so instead of ‘fixing’ things through the insertion of what can be regarded as ‘modern-day’ techniques, focus should be on addressing what changed in food production vs. consumption and what to do about it. Unfortunately such reasoning is flawed because such a statement assumes that African farmers have had the opportunity in the past to incorporate new seed, fertilizer and other ‘modern-day’ techniques/technology and have declined to use these tools because they were not advantageous, whereas the reality is these farmers never had the economic clout to entertain these options in the first place.
Another criticism of the AGRA strategy is that the introduction of fertilizer is only a short-term solution in that it may increase yields, but will reduce soil quality in the process creating a system of agriculture dependent on fertilizer which will have the same vulnerability that the developed world faces when it comes to price spikes due to increasing natural gas and oil prices. Most of those individuals that have these concerns seem to only read about the sound bites of the AGRA strategy, not the official strategy itself. Introducing fertilizer and advanced seed is not all that the AGRA proposes to generate an agricultural revolution in Africa. Additional elements for soil improvement involve improved water harvesting and management, planting nitrogen fixing crops and use of manure to compliment fertilizer as well as management groups to track and document the use and quality of soils throughout Africa.2
However, despite other avenues for improvement of African agriculture, incorporation of advanced seed and fertilizer is still a significant component of the AGRA policy. Pertaining to the concern that fertilizer will enhance the influence of the price shock due to fluctuating natural gas and oil prices, at the present time it is difficult to conclude that African farmers will have tons of fertilizer per hectare ratios akin to the developed world.3 Therefore, these lower ratios will reduce the amplitude of any price spikes seen in African nations vs. the developed world relative to fertilizer price. This is not to say that food price will not be influenced by fertilizer price, just that it will not be as excessive (at least until the market is developed enough that it can be adjust to price spikes). Also as discussed in a previous post, an increase in fertilizer and transport price due to increased oil prices was only one of many factors contributing to the increasing food price in the developed world. Overall the claim that fertilizer should not be introduced solely based on the fact that it will not be a permanent fixture in African agriculture is unreasonable. However, such a sword is dual-edged in that is introducing fertilizer in the first place a reasonable strategy if not enough of it will be incorporated to significantly increase yields?
A second concern with the introduction of fertilizer has been the question of fertilizer dependency. The core question regarding fertilizer dependency is does large quantities of fertilizer used over a number of years in the same plot eliminate the natural ability of the soil to support crop growth without fertilizer. Fertilizer dependency is a tricky issue because it is generally unclear that such a phenomenon exists, although some studies claim there is a correlation between fertilizer use and soil depletion and/or complications.4,5 The problem is that proving correlations are difficult and even if true, little work has been done generating any type of fertilizer to soil quality ratio. For instance clearly if a correlation did exist between fertilizer use and depletion of soil quality, it is likely that less fertilizer use would result in slower soil depletion; however, is there a time frame and amount of fertilizer use that delineates the point where a plot is dependent on fertilizer vs. it has the capacity for recovery? Also is the relationship linear or is there a threshold point where all fertilizer use below that point has zero detrimental influence on soil quality? Although it is highly probable that there is an answer to these questions, the answers are undetermined.
Identifying this ‘dependency’ factor is important because if there is no dependency factor, fertilizer can be used to significantly increase yields over the time it is available and then phased-out of African agriculture when the price outweighs its yield benefits. Thus, farmers can increase yields and become more profitable utilizing fertilizer and then revert back to non-fertilizer based agriculture when profitability is not longer viable without any significant detriment. If fertilizer dependency is legitimate and the time frame and quantity required would more than likely be met, then incorporation of fertilizer could be inappropriate due to long-term detriments outweighing short-term benefits.
Another avenue of agricultural improvement sought by the AGRA is expansion of individual crop profitability on a crop per crop basis. Not only do farmers need the tools to increase yield, but also better access to markets because an increased yield loses a significant amount of value if the market is not large or convenient enough to absorb the additional product. Therefore, the AGRA also aims to reduce transaction costs by establishing more rural marketplaces, commodity exchanges, produce alternatives and milling and processing operations.2
The policy and partnership program of the AGRA focuses on strengthening the ability of governments at a national level to establish policies to benefit farmers in effort to facilitate the necessary changes, both on an institutional level and technological level, to catalyze a green revolution. These national changes will also allow a given African nation a better opportunity to participate in global level negotiations with other nations. Based on the history of agriculture and its market structure in Africa, this strategy very well could be the most important element to increasing agriculture productivity and economic prosperity.
The second option for improving African agriculture is continuing not to use fertilizer or advanced seed and instead introduce more thorough organic farming techniques. The reason this strategy is so appealing is that some believe because the Green Revolution skipped most of Africa, most of its farming remains low input low output, thus its farming system is already de facto organic. In general organic farming focuses on the use of specific land management over technology and biological processes over chemical processes.6 For example some of the organic farming in Africa include returning nitrogen to the soil via nitrogen fixation from legumes, planting spring onions to ward off insects and altering surrounding ground layers to reduce erosion.
Organic farming proponents believe that the better option for increasing profitability of African agriculture lies in reducing costs instead of increasing volume of product sold. One of the main cost-cutting methods in organic farming is bypassing fertilizer in favor of more labor-intensive methods that not only generate conditions for profit and yield increase, but also offer temporary employment to fellow Africans. Lower labor costs typically differentiate the higher costs of organic farming in the developed world vs. the lower costs of the same organic farming in the developing world.
It seems rational to conclude that most of any increase in yields derived from organic farming involve faster turnover of available and viable farmland. In the past African agriculture relied on natural replenishment. Food was grown on a given plot until the soil began to lose a significant amount of nutrients (2-4 years) then a quasi slash-and-burn is performed on the land and it is abandoned, while the planter moves on to a new plot. After approximately 5-15 years (depending on various conditions) a secondary forest region will usually grow over the slash-and-burned region and gradually the soil regains its fertility making the land viable for crop growth once again.7
Unfortunately this method of cultivating typically results in soil that is rarely of the quality of the previous soil. Also the natural method of regeneration is imprecise requiring that one err on the side of caution (waiting longer than perhaps necessary) before renewing cultivation efforts. The waiting is necessary, for if cultivation begins too early soil fertility and crop yield is decreased reducing cultivation lifespan to 1, maybe 2 years. If crop growth is pushed beyond this lifespan, soil will become exhausted increasing the probability of weed infestation (typically Imperata cylindrical) basically spoiling the ability of the plot to rejuvenate naturally.7 Therefore, the idea behind introducing more genuine organic techniques is to reduce or even eliminate the downtime for these plots, thus increasing yield by increasing crop turnover. Small additional yield increases could also come from the soil in general being more fertile.
However, there seems to be a suggestion from some supporters that utilizing organic techniques in Africa will generate yields that will rival those generated from significant inclusion of fertilizer. Such claims are problematic because there are a wide variety of studies which support and disprove this statement. In smaller studies organic farms do well versus fertilizer-driven farms on a ratio basis (lb/hectare) and total output (sum of all positive output, not just crops).8,9,10,11 However, there are few complete studies that focus on scaling up organic plots to rival the absolute yield capacity of fertilizer-driven farms. Overall organic plots will generate 20-25% lower yields than fertilizer-driven plots, but will require less energy and will better maintain soil fertility and biodiversity.12
Another issue that needs to be addressed regarding the future evolution of agriculture is water availability. A vast majority of agriculture is rain-fed either due to lack of irrigation availability or irrigation infrastructure; however, in the future such dependency on rain looks to be troublesome as progressing climate change can be viewed as the most pertinent and viable threat to agriculture evolution demanding the development of new strategies for water access. For example the IPCC predicts that by 2020 in some countries in Africa, yields from rain-fed sources could be reduced by up to 50%, which will severely compromise access to domestic food supplies.13 Most of this crop shortage will occur in Northern and Southern Africa due to significant decrease in overall rainfall. Although not hit as hard, Central Africa will also see an overall reduction in total rainfall.13 Unfortunately viable water synthesis alternatives do not appear to be available for large parts of Africa. For example the most popular method of potable water generation is desalinization, but Africa does not have the energy or financial resources to initiate a large-scale desalinization programs similar to those in the Middle East. Although there are initial ideas of generating a large-scale solar energy production network in the Sahara, it is unlikely that anything substantial will be up and running in time to be meaningful regarding a desalinization strategy. Therefore, a cheaper strategy needs to be developed to avoid serious water and agricultural shortfall in the future or application of either the AGRA method or the advanced organic method to improve agriculture will be ineffective.
Although it may not be important at the time due to the improvement of African agriculture being largely driven by the priority to feed Africa itself, one of the factors that supporters neglect to discuss when considering the effects of organic farming is crop certification for export. In order for a farm that is classified as organic to export to the world market it must be certified. The certification is organized under an official participatory guarantee system, which is operated by a group comprised of farmers linked to a specific exporter. Clearly the farm must be ‘up-to-snuff’ because the reputation of the exporter is on the line with each export.
There are two types of certified organic farming in Africa. The first are large conglomerates or agribusinesses (yes there are some in Africa) like SEKEM, which can implement internal control systems such as inspection, marketing activities and certification on their own.6 The second are small groups, maybe in a collective maybe not. It is much more difficult for these small groups to be certified because of lack of organization and lack of resources. Therefore, farms that fall into this second group typically need support through food or development aid programs like Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa (EPOPA).6
Other than certification the second big problem most African nations will have exporting is that currently there is not a large market for intracontinental exportation, thus it is reasonable to anticipate that the biggest recipient of African exports will be Europe, most notably the European Union. Such a reality is a problem for most nations due to the high transportation costs to cover the distance and the lack of existing infrastructure to reduce these transportation costs. Thus to maximize export potential most sub-Saharan countries would need to focus on low volume high price items.
A renewed focus on exporting may be more detrimental than beneficial to African agriculture if mistakes of the past are repeated where exportation focus became an obstacle in the development of African agriculture. A significant reason that African agriculture flounders behind the systems in North America, South America, Europe and Asia can be attributed to the attitude of colonial powers when most of Africa was originally broken up into colonies answering largely to European powers. Under the control of European powers most land use was geared towards livestock or high value crop production to provide an economic driver for maintaining the colony.14,15 Little attention was paid to the local population and the development of a thriving local market. Rationally the best land was selected to grow these high value crops, which would later be exported back for sale on the European market, because the local market did not have the ability to absorb significant quantities of said crop. The remaining land was utilized for local crop growth with little regard for land quality.
This strategy emulated the old ‘chicken vs. egg’ argument where the local markets were not developed, so little attention was paid to producing crops that could be sold locally, but because few to no crops were grown for sale locally, little attention was paid to developing a large local market that could absorb those crops. Realistically one can somewhat understand the attitude of the colonial powers in that running a colony costs significant capital, thus the colony must produce economically viable resources and growing high value low volume cash crops was the easiest way to accomplish that economic goal. The lack of development of local markets lead to a lack of purchasing power for the local population, which unfortunately forced food and other agricultural products from areas where they were most in demand to areas were the demand was considerably lower, but the market could afford them.14,15
Even though colonial powers no longer rule over various African countries it can be argued that their policies centuries earlier put African agriculture in a significant hole that it has yet to climb out of. Although it would be different now, in that any capital generated from exportation would go to the African countries not its colonial masters, some would argue that any focus on exportation would be at some level of expense to local markets and would simply delay agriculture development in Africa. One could understand this position even now as the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and structural adjustment programs (SAP) have frequently favored developed nations over developing nations in the subject of global trade. A number of policies from these organizations have given considerable power to markets over governments (policies that put Africa at a disadvantage due to underdeveloped markets and little market power).16,17 Stripping power from governments in these developing nations is sometimes viewed as necessary before opening the door to allow trading on the global market, but loss of this power also limits protections that can be applied to domestic consumers, one of the main reasons to explain price spikes in these countries, despite insignificant influence from most of influencing factors of price. Therefore, one of the primary ways to both reduce the volatility of food price and further aid the advancement of African agriculture, regardless of which direct agricultural strategies is applied, may be to establish better governmental control policies outside of the influence of the WTO, IMF and World Bank.
Overall improving export potential would be a worthwhile goal for many African nations if significant quantities of agricultural related items could be exported. However, at the moment without specific quota aid it its difficult to conclude that African nations will eventually be able to effectively compete with larger developed nations on the world market. Realistically these nations will probably never be able to compete on par from a grain exportation slate with countries like the United States, Canada and Russia due to technological and topographical limitations, thus advantages for pursuing exportation become murkier.
Improving the agriculture infrastructure in Africa is not isolated to just a cultivation methodology. Fertilizer is not the only technological advantage that the developed world has over the developing world in the field of agriculture. Another option that has received a significant amount of attention would be to supply African farmers with genetically engineered crops (largely Bt and HRCs) that resist specific types of pests reducing costs and use of pesticides moving beyond ‘simple’ high yield seed. However, executing such a strategy would be difficult. In order to adequately distribute genetically engineered seeds throughout Africa the seeds would have to be provided for no cost or be heavily subsidized to adhere to the intellectual properties rights held by companies like Monsanto, which developed and sell the seeds in question.
The question of genetic engineered crops has been explored before and critical elements of cost would have to be decided before progression. Corporations are concerned with mass production of genetically engineered plants without profiteering safeguards because such crops can be harvested for their seed and that seed can be recycled into the next growing season removing the need to purchase new seed from the corporation. Clearly corporations that spend the money on research and development to produce these new products deserve to be compensated and not have the profitability of their product compromised. However, there are questions of morality in that access to these advances should not be limited only for the rich. So before an idea involving these seeds in mass can go forward a solution will need to be reached to properly compensate these corporations.
Even if approval could be arranged for the mass deployment of genetically engineered seed in Africa there are a number of opponents that believe such a strategy would be flawed. Numerous studies have expressed various concerns about the administration of genetically engineered seed on their own and in co-existence strategies with non-engineered seed. The most pressing concerns are unintentional and possibly detrimental spread of genes from the engineered crop to the non-engineered crop, reduction in fitness of non-target organisms through transgenic trait hybridization, rapid resistance generation for target insects and disruption of natural pest control measures.17,18,19,20,21 Gene transfer is a significant concern by itself as in developing countries there is the belief that wild weeds can be more sexually compatible making transfer of various resistances more probable unintentionally creating ‘super’ weeds.17
There are also concerns with the yield potential of the seeds themselves as problems with stem splitting and boll drop can arise. Also transgenic seed combination with fertilizer could increase the rate of soil depletion due to the accumulation of transgenic toxins (such as Bt toxin) in soil, which would further reduce soil fertility.17
The real issue in genetically engineered crops may be the underlying problem which emphasizes the ‘one pest-one gene’ approach. Unfortunately such a strategy limits the ability to initiate an alternative strategy when pest targets develop resistance to the genetically induced deterrence. When greater selection pressure is applied to a population through a single element it is reasonable to assume that there will be a more rapid and significant reactionary evolution response. This rapid response is why some favor the principle of ‘integrated pest management’ which avoids utilizing single responses to a given condition (a single pesticide for a single insect population, etc.) and instead employs multiple pest and cultivation control mechanisms.17 Under such a strategy even if a certain group develops resistance to a transgenic crop or pesticide there is a higher probability that the group is wiped out by another means before passing those resistance genes on to the next generation. To combat rapid resistance development in the United States the EPA mandates that farmers designate a certain percentage of their plot for non-Bt crop varieties. However, whether or not a similar policy will be incorporated in developing countries with the incorporation of genetically engineered crops is unclear.22,23
Another means to increase efficiency of agricultural operations in the developing world would be to augment their operations with modern harvesting technology. Initially one may be skeptical regarding the application and expansion of modern harvesting technology, but there is a significant advantage. One of the biggest concerns in African agriculture is not an increasing population that becomes harder and harder to feed, but a decreasing population that is unable to produce significant quantities of food through lack of available labor. For example it is typical that millions of young African men and women migrate from their home villages/cities to acquire work leaving a smaller and less able workforce to tend the fields.1 Any potential lack of local labor can be neutralized through application of modern harvesting technology.
Unfortunately similar to genetically engineered seeds, it would be impractical for companies like John Deer and Caterpillar to simply give the necessary heavy machinery to these farmers. Clearly the company would want to sell it to the farmer. The problem with that is the farmer more than likely could not afford it. The United States government gives millions to billions of dollars in the form of food aid annually. Technically there is nothing stopping a temporary shift in policy converting some of that food aid into grants for heavy machinery and proper training in its use. In fact it would be possible to simply create a government sponsored production chain which purchases John Deer/Caterpillar equipment from U.S. manufacturers and then gives it to African farmers through a government run charity. Politically such a policy shift may create an unusual battle between the farm lobby and the manufacturing lobby as food aid is typically purchased not simply given away.
While the above procurement method seems viable, distribution of this equipment may be a sketchy issue. One possibility involves the use of a lottery-type system where farmers would be assigned a ‘x’ digit number (however many numerals are necessary) and a select quantity of numbers would be drawn randomly to determine who receives the equipment.
Another question regarding the above program is would there be domestic strife created by such a program? Largely the question stems from whether or not the local or federal government of a specific country involved in the program should be directly involved or indirectly involved? Circumventing the government avoids issues of potential corruption that could restrict or disallow the acquisition of the equipment for the farmers under trumped up circumstances, resulting in a distribution of those items to those that do not need them (i.e. the rich and the well connected). However, if the government were only an indirect player in the distribution process, what would be the chances of the government seizing the equipment at a later date? What about conflict between farmers that receive equipment and those that do not, especially in the more war-torn states because clearly not all farmers would be able to receive the necessary equipment? This could be a big problem because the farmers that receive the equipment should outpace those that do not, increasing the probability of wealth division between the two parties.
If strife and conflict under a randomly assigned distribution system is determined to be highly probable, another strategy for distribution could involve establishing regions of use and assigning certain operators that would utilize the equipment on farms within the assigned regions. Basically no one would own the equipment instead it would be used by farmers within a given region as community property. This strategy would probably succeed in poor communities will few resources because there would be little conflict as all parties would accept equal access and even if they wanted the equipment for themselves, they would not have the resources to take it from others in the region.
Overall both of the main strategies for developing African agriculture have flaws that seem difficult to rectify. AGRA and its supporters have the problem of fertilizer availability. In the future fertilizer prices will continue to increase driven by increasing natural gas and oil prices as well as potential phosphorous shortages, thus there is little reason to believe that fertilizer price will crest in the future. Although inconsistent assess to fertilizer does not destroy the success parameters for the AGRA, the problem is much more serious if fertilizer dependency is legitimate, for then execution of widespread fertilizer use could be devastating in the long term. If fertilizer dependency is not legitimate, then the strategy proposed by AGRA seems to be rather effective, for as previous mentioned once fertilizer becomes too expensive farmers can simply convert back to an organic agriculture style utilizing some of the more advanced strategies proposed by the organic strategy supporters. Proponents of more thorough organic techniques have the problem that it is still highly debatable that such a strategy will afford Africa the ability to provide a significant portion of its food on a domestic level. As previously mentioned there are serious questions regarding the scale-up potential of organic farming. Lacking the ability to scale-up reduces the potential of both the domestic and foreign markets.
Therefore, the debate regarding the best growth methodology between the two above strategies regarding increasing the viability and productivity of the African agricultural system boils down to two questions. The first question: is fertilizer dependency a significant concern? The answer to this question seems rather complex because of the issue of fertilizer threshold dependency. One could argue that an objective party conduct field test studies on small isolated plots of land that simulate African soil structure and after a considerable period of time wean the soil off of fertilizer (various portions of the area would receive various concentrations of fertilizer) and measure the change, if any, in yield versus a control plot. In fact some of the Sauri region in the AGRA could be used for this analysis due to the introduction of ample quantities of fertilizer a few years ago.2 However, such a study would take a considerable period of time.
The second question: what is the projected lifespan of fertilizer use in African agriculture? Basically how long will most African farmers be able to afford and use sufficient quantities of fertilizer? The reason this question is important is it relates back to another question, what alternative strategies can be undertaken with the money that would be used to provide the initial supplies of fertilizer to various African farmers? If the lifespan of fertilizer use is ‘long’ then it is highly likely that the economic benefit derived from the administration of fertilizer will overshadow many of the alternatives that could be executed in lieu of fertilizer use. If the lifespan of fertilizer use is ‘short’ then it is highly likely that the economic benefit derived from the administration of fertilizer will fall short of these possible alternatives.
The answer to the above question will largely depend on estimations regarding remaining oil, natural gas and phosphorous supplies. Another influencing factor would be whether or not a new catalytic process for fertilizer synthesis is generated in the future. A new catalytic step would more than likely reduce required energy, thus reducing the influence of oil and natural gas price on fertilizer synthesis.
Either way the long-term solution to African food security may rest behind door number 3. Although stocks have been depleted due to efforts to create more cultivatable land, Africa still has considerable wood-based resources (excluding Northern Africa due to a certain topographical feature). Wood estimates range from 65-70 billion tons from twig to trunk.7 Such an ample supply of wood stocks seem to almost scream for a strategy involving biochar synthesis and sequestration in soil. Instead of utilizing slash-and-burn techniques, farmers would instead collect a percentage of any biomass refuge and use it in a pyrolysis process to generate bio-char that could be sequestered in the soil.
There is little question that bio-char has the potential to produce a positive effect when it is integrated into soil; it increases the quality of that soil enhancing the growth rates and yields of any future crops by aiding in the supply and retention of nutrients.24,25,26 However, the question is whether or not the incorporation of bio-char into the wide variety of African soils will have the same positive effects seen in the Amazon and test plots in North America.27,28 The test plots in Canada run by the Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation reported results after a year long study of an increase of 6-17% in yield as well as greater root depth and plant density.28
In addition to bio-char, the Moringa Tree (the most common variety being moringa oleifera) also has the potential to increase yield. The moringa tree has proven to have excessive quantities of basic nutrients (Vitamin A, C, calcium, potassium, iron, etc.), thus it is an excellent food crop. However, the green matter (most notably in the leaves) can be extracted in ethanol to create a solution containing growth enhancing properties (cytokinine hormones)29 that can be applied to crops. Crops that are exposed to these moringa derived hormones experience accelerated growth, increased pest resistance, reduced rate of decay, larger fruit, deeper roots and greater yields by 20-35%.29
Overall despite the large attention that is being paid to the fertilizer or no fertilizer debate, there are clearly a number of elements that can be incorporated into a successful cultivation improvement strategy. First, based on the above initial studies it would prove valuable to begin employing a system that generates a sufficient amount of bio-char and moringa plant matter as growth enhancement elements. These systems can be created through focal points of land (more than likely government owned) which would be responsible for housing the pyrolysis plant(s) responsible for synthesizing the bio-char as well as growing and producing the moringa trees and the resultant green matter/ethanol solution. A percentage of plants and other biomass material would be taken from fields (only a percentage because complete removal of all refuse could be detrimental to soil quality and reduce erosion protection) and funneled to these pyrolysis plants where the resultant bio-char could be sold at the same local market as food crops from local fields that provide the bio-char. The Moringa trees could be grown near the pyrolysis plants (on the government owned land) or they could be grown on local farms.
Second, clearly a new strategy regarding the influx of water to crops needs to be established. With climate change threatening to reduce the level of rainfall in Africa, a large number of crops will not have sufficient water, which will collapse the entire structure regardless of whether or not fertilizer is used or whatever organic technique applied. One possibility to reduce (but not eliminate) the water burden would be to look into establishing a network of atmospheric water generators in the Sahara desert and other remote regions of Africa.
Third, new government-based protections need to be established under periods of emergency to avoid severe price spikes. Note that it would be difficult to grant governments any sweeping powers to control prices due to potential trade interference, but the ability to neutralize price spikes that would lead to civil unrest and/or greater starvation should be granted. In addition to greater government protections, the AGRA idea to form farmer-based cooperatives should be pursued so farmers can better work with each other to maximize profit and crop growth while generating a greater ability to negotiate on the domestic and global stage.
Fourth, improving transportation infrastructure is important because African agriculture is typically divided in smaller more numerous farm plots, not the larger plots in the developing world, thus it would be difficult to establish meaningful marketplaces in all of these regions that would have the potential to grow. Therefore, establishing better transportation routes to ferry agricultural products to a more centralized marketplace should foster better economic growth. Incorporating rail instead of road should involve less overall cost (due to future maintenance) as well as be more economically assessable to a wide variety of socioeconomic classes.
Overall despite the good initial start in the past decade, there is still much left to do in order to encourage the evolution of Africa’s agricultural system. One of the most important things that must be respected when applying a method is the future of the system. It would be irresponsible to sacrifice the future of Africa agriculture in effort to fill holes in the immediate short-term. Short-term thought is partially responsible for the problems in African agriculture to begin with, thus short-term thought cannot be used to generate a viable solution.
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