Synthetic fertiliser kills soils, harms health says AFSA ahead of Africa summit

Million Belay

Dr Million Belay, the General Coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa addressing a past conference in Addis Ababa.

Photo credit: Pool

Ahead of the upcoming Africa fertiliser and soil health summit, a group of African civil society organisations has dismissed a proposal to increase chemical fertiliser use, saying it will worsen soil degradation and undermine food security and public health.

The African Union and the Kenyan Government will host a summit on fertilisers and soil health in Nairobi from May 7 to 9, 2024. The gathering will “highlight the crucial role of fertiliser and soil health in stimulating sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture”. 

The proposed 10-year Fertiliser and Soil Health Action Plan 2023-2033 aims to “significantly increase investments in the local manufacturing and distribution of mineral and organic fertilisers, biofertilisers and biostimulants” and triple fertiliser use to 54kg/ha in 2033. 

But the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which represents 41 African civil society organisations, on Friday expressed scepticism about the proposed approaches and called for the action plan to be revised.

“Civil society has a pivotal role in the fertiliser and soil health debate, not only by linking actors across the value chain but by challenging narratives that threaten seed diversity and pushing back against the productivist agenda that prioritizes yields over nutrition, health, and environmental integrity,” said Dr Million Belay, AFSA’s general coordinator. 

They were speaking at a webinar cum-press briefing ahead of the fertiliser and soil health summit, which starts in Nairobi on Tuesday.

Not consulted 

“It’s disconcerting that African civil society was not consulted in the planning of the [summit] nor in the formulation of its 10-year plan,” says AFSA, which represents more than 200 million smallholder farmers, pastoralists, hunter/gatherers, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, women, youth groups and agroecological entrepreneurs from across Africa.

AFSA is championing a shift to agroecology, which combines local knowledge with scientific innovation to restore biodiversity and build resilient food systems. The group argues that the AU’s plan marginalizes sustainable approaches to agriculture and misrepresents what agroecology can do to address food security on the continent.

“We need to take care of our soils for future generations. There is the African saying: ‘We borrow land from our children’, said Ferdinand Wafula of Bio Gardening Innovations, Kenya, one of the AFSA affiliates. 

“We urge policymakers, governments, and donors to provide more funding to these alternatives because they mitigate a huge number of issues ranging from nutrition challenges to the climate crisis and the escalating prices for commodities.”

Dead soil

He added that Africa needs to grow diverse crops using ecological methods. “Synthetic materials kill microorganisms. If they kill that, we cultivate on dead soil. Dead soil does not give us nutrition.”

AFSA says soil degradation is increasing in Africa, with over 20 per cent of land in most countries in the region degraded, “affecting over 65 per cent of the population and resulting in significant adverse effects on food production and human livelihoods”. 

Soils across Africa “have lost organic matter and are often bare and sometimes capped like concrete. They are missing the highly diverse microbial life in healthy natural soils,” AFSA said. 

“There is an urgent need for proactive interventions to arrest and reverse soil degradation. Agricultural lands are especially prone to erosion and nutrient depletion.”

Enriching fertiliser firms 

AFSA says while it acknowledges the AU’s commitment to reversing soil degradation and addressing hunger, malnutrition and poverty, the proposed action plan will exacerbate economic strains by increasing dependency on expensive imported fertilizers, enriching a handful of fertilizer companies while African farmers face soaring costs. 

The groups instead propose a shift from dependency on synthetic inputs to “showcasing the capabilities of African farmers to cultivate robust and diverse food systems through agroecological practices”.

AFSA also urged stakeholders to reject the current approach of placing yield above nutritional value, health, the environment and cultural relevance. It called on policymakers to involve farmers and civil society in agricultural planning so that “policies can reflect the real needs and contexts of those at the heart of the food system”. 

It proposed greater investments and specific financial support for agroecological practices. 

“The current push to increase chemical inputs is a misguided agenda that profits corporations at the expense of smallholder African farmers,” the group said. “AFSA calls for a comprehensive reevaluation of the Fertiliser and Soil Health Action Plan to focus on empowering farmers, protecting biodiversity, and building resilient food systems through agroecological and locally adapted practices.”

Others who spoke at the webinar were Esther Bett, the executive director at Resources Oriented Development Initiative Kenya, and Prof Mamadou Goita from the  Coalition to Protect African Genetic Heritage.

Also participating were Henry Chibutu, country director of SCOPE Zambia, part of the RESCOPE Network that operates in
six African countries; and Dr Blessing Magonziwa, a soil health expert from the University of Zimbabwe.

Another speaker at the event which was moderated by Anne Maina, the National Coordinator, of Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya was Daniel Gitahi, the director of agricultural value chains, policy and strategy in Murang'a County government, which in 2022 became the first Kenyan region to enact an agroecology policy.