Independent researchers suggest that in Africa, 65 percent of arable land, 30 percent of grazing land and 20 percent of forests are now damaged. Photo by: Eliza Deacon / FAO

The quantity and quality of the food we eat depend on healthy soils, but soil management has so far failed to become a top priority in the global development agenda — a trend the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization hopes to change in 2015, declared the International Year of Soils.

Lack of interest in the issue by donors and implementers alike has long worried soil advocates. The Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts focused on agricultural development and food security in sub-Saharan Africa, noted in a December 2014 report how “undervalued, soils have become politically and physically neglected, triggering land degradation” across the whole region. Furthermore, independent researchers suggest that in Africa, 65 percent of arable land, 30 percent of grazing land and 20 percent of forests are now damaged.

With donors not paying considerable attention to the issue, financial statements are often unclear, with the only available data, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's desertification marker, showing that from 2002 to 2012, less than 1 percent of development aid had put towards fighting soil degradation as a priority.

More research is one way to begin addressing this problem, according to the Montpellier Panel, as well as strengthening partnerships with the private sector — in particular smallholder farmers, who can help bridge the gap between coming up with the data and securing the interest of donors.

“Research has to be put at the service of the local farmer,” Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development and co-chair of the panel, told Devex at the International Fund for Agricultural Development's headquarters in Rome. “Researchers need to spend more time listening to and working with farmers on the ground, understanding the farmers are researchers too.”

Farmers, she explained, already have a vast understanding of different soil types and know — often instinctively — what works and what doesn't, which crops grow well in different soils, and how to improve the overall quality of these soils.

There is therefore significant untapped potential and a need to engage in better dialogue. “We need a better partnership between researchers and farmers, so that they respect each others’ knowledge and skill,” Toulmin noted. “From that you can start to get a much better marriage of traditional knowledge and modern science, because each can bring their insights to a shared purpose.”

Toulmin also sees opportunities for more partnerships with big agribusiness, for instance by sourcing fertilizers for smallholders that can't afford to buy in bulk.

“If you don't have the the money to buy a hundred-kilo sack, effectively you can’t get fertilizers. One thing a number of private sector actors and merchants have been doing is making available fertilizers in much smaller quantities, which is much more accessible for people who have not got very much money,” she said. “It’s a kind of repackaging of a product in a way that it gets to be much more accessible to poorest farmers.”

But while this type of engagement definitely has its advantages for all stakeholders, it doesn't come without risks. Toulmin stressed that these partnerships in particular require public regulatory interventions to secure farmers' land rights and sustainable long-term soils management.

Should donors pay more attention to soil management as a priority in agriculture and food security policies? What steps can be taken to expedite progress in this area? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.