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Overcoming the Hurricane of Hunger

Roland Bunch writes in Food Tank:

“For over 2,000 years, African farmers kept their soils fertile by forest fallowing (also called “slash-and-burn agriculture”). This system kept the soil fertile for millennia with no use of synthetic fertilizers, in spite of the people consuming significant amounts of nutrients taken from the soil four or five out of each twenty years. That forest also kept the weeds under control, kept the soil moist, largely controlled insects and plant diseases (without pesticides), produced tremendous amounts of biomass, and sequestered millions of tons/ha of carbon in the soil…

What is the problem now? Because of human population growth, the amount of land available for Africa’s rural households decreased during the 20th century to less than 1.5 ha/family by the 1980s. With that amount of land, farmers could not fallow their land for 15 years, as they had for centuries, and have enough land left over to produce enough food. Farmers began reducing their fallowing time from 15 to 10 years to 8 years, 4 years, and eventually nothing. Forest fallowing is now on its deathbed across sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, the organic matter content of the soil has dropped from the normal 4 percent before the 1980s, to less than 1 percent today. This has caused the rainwater infiltration rate to drop from 60 percent to 10 or 20 percent. Thus, even without climate change, the amount of water in farmers’ soils is now just 1/3 to 1/6 of what their crops enjoyed 30 years ago. Furthermore, without enough organic matter, the soil becomes rock-hard, so crop roots cannot penetrate the soil, either. It is, in fact, primarily because of a lack of organic matter that Africa is suffering these crippling droughts.

What can we do about all of this? The fact that soil degradation, rather than climate change, is the primary cause of the increasing hunger means that the farmers themselves are no longer just helpless victims. They themselves have the power to solve the problem if they just learn a few new farming practices. Secondly, it means that we don’t need to just stick a finger in the dike; we can build a new dike. But how?”

Learn more: What Will Be the Most Effective Way of Overcoming the “Hurricane of Hunger”?