There is an increasing emphasis on the effective management of soils towards achieving the global goal of food security.
“Soils not only give us 95 per cent of the food we eat but also silently provide us with almost all ecosystem services and functions that enable life to exist on Earth,” points out Ronald Vargas, Secretary Global Soil Partnership, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
“This thin skin of the planet on which humans stand up every day is also responsible for cleaning, filtering and storing water, recycling nutrients, regulating the climate and floods and removing carbon dioxide and other gases from the atmosphere, all while hosting about a quarter of the animal species on earth.”
He notes that soil advocacy is more important than ever, given that the world is facing a food and fertiliser crisis because of the challenges of Post COVID-19 recovery, ongoing conflicts and the ever-increasing evidence of climate change.
Prof. Musa Audu of the Nigeria Institute of Soil Science (NISS) points to continuous cultivation and irrigation as factors responsible for degrading soil and decreasing soil output.
“For the soils around, they have one problem or the other as cultivation continues. Either it loses fertility because of continuous cultivation or natural phenomena may be due to weather,” explains the professor of Soil Chemistry.
“In the arid or semi-arid environment, cultivation is done with the help of irrigation. Continuous irrigation brings about what is called a salinity problem, and once a salinity problem occurs, you devise a means of reclaiming that soil; if not, the plant may not grow and give effective yields,” Prof. Audu adds.
“Another issue is the acidity of the soil. With cultivation and continuous rainfall, acidity may occur, and once the soil becomes acidic, some crops may not perform effectively.”
Professor Audu observes, “Our population keeps increasing, but the land resource is not; it’s dormant. You cannot increase land resources.”
“We have to devise a means of meeting the challenges of that population increment because everybody must eat. So what do we do to improve our soil condition, enhance crop productivity, and satisfy the population’s increasing requirements?”
As part of efforts to enhance food production, NISS embarked on a training programme for farmers and extension agents across different regions on sustainable and effective soil management practices through soil testing kits.
Coordinator NISS North-West Zone office, Sokoto Prof. Sama’ila S. Noma, explains the institute’s efforts in this direction.
“Since it came on board in 2017, the institute has been training farmers and extension agents on the management and protection of soil resources, use of soil test kits to know the nature and status, and that has seriously impacted the farmers.”
“Some of them know now that because of the high cost of fertilisers, devise a way to manage the little fertiliser that you have and to get more yields from the little that you apply,” he adds.
“The only way to do that is knowing soil status in terms of nutrients in it, what nutrients you need to add, what quantity to add, which are determined by the type of crop you intend to grow.”
Haliru Mu’azu, also of the NISS Northwest zone, speaks further on the soil, the most overlooked in all the factors of sustainable food production.
“It is not only about getting the variety of seed to plant; it is also not only about having a farm; it is not only about having a well for irrigation. There are a lot of issues in soil,” he asserts.
“A lot of issues need to be regulated, and that’s what the NISS is doing. It is part of the mandate of the institute to test the soil and give recommendations to the farmers on the quantity of fertilisers for them to apply. It is part of the mandate of the institute to regulate the use of herbicides and pesticides; some are detrimental to soil health.”
The soil scientist notes: “We have different organisms in the soil, which, when you interfere with their normal lives, you are killing the soil.”
However, with the new technique, more farmers are embracing innovative soil monitoring techniques and effecting changes to agricultural soils to boost their ability to produce crops and ensure food security.
Equipped with soil testing kits to manage their soils sustainably and productively, they are now taking farming decisions based on soil conditions, which hitherto was out of the equation. Some farmlands abandoned due to low fertility have become once productive agricultural soil.
Now, the farmers know better. Functional soils play a critical role in food security.
Bello Tukur, a foremost farmer from Kwalkwalawa village in the Wamakko local government area of Sokoto State, is a beneficiary of the innovative soil practices capacity building.
“I have seen the benefits of proper soil analysis, which ensures the application of enough fertiliser to meet crop requirements,” asserts Tukur, with over two decades of experience in farming.
“I have seen the effects of potassium on our soil and what farmers need to apply as a remedy. I know crops to grow on what type of soil and what to do if the soil is saline.”
Tukur has stepped down the training of some other farmers in the community, and he is glad that the farmers he introduced to the new technique appreciate the results. “In five years, about 40 to 50 farmers would benefit from the new method. It will be a significant achievement.”
Gazali Umar, another Sokoto-based farmer, acknowledges the importance of soil testing in providing valuable information to achieve healthy soils for efficient production.
“Honestly, I have learnt a lot; my understanding has improved about how to carry out rain-fed or irrigation farming. I put the knowledge on the new approach to the test, and it works.”
“I could produce ten bags of rice using previous practices, but with the new technique, I can get 15 to 18 bags.”
NISS Registrar Professor Victor Chude describes the soil test kits as an innovation for soil analysis as a basis for site-specific recommendations towards achieving food security
He adds the test kit contains apparatus that can be used jointly to analyse soil and provide results to farmers.
“Fertiliser application without proper soil testing could lead to plant nutrient imbalance on plants, pollution of groundwater, eutrophication of the surface water bodies and economic losses to the farmers,” he points out.
“Optimum soil fertiliser is vital for maximum production of crops, especially in farms where continuous cropping is the major practice, as commonly seen in Nigerian farms.”
The soil experts urge governments to invest more in soils and ensure sustainable and effective soil management practices to boost food production.
Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture Resources and Rural Development, Dr Mohammed Abubakar, acknowledges the need to give special attention to the soil.
He notes that soil management gaps have affected the country’s fertiliser usage and land use planning but expresses the federal government’s determination to bridge the gaps.
Abubakar points to the establishment of the National Soil Testing and Geographic Information System laboratories as a testimony to their commitment.
The Minister explains the laboratories’ aim at boosting food security, suitability and capability of lands for sustainable production of different crops and land use.
“These laboratories,” he says, “are highly significant in ensuring food security for the nation and promoting technology-driven agriculture.”