Urgent action needed to stop soil degradation

By Peter Kamau

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” This statement from former US president Franklin Roosevelt, made in 1937 is very relevant to what is happening in Kenya at the moment. We have been busy destroying our soils in the last three decades and we are now reaping the results.

On February 26, 2015, Agricultural PS Felix Koskei launched the draft policy on agriculture, a blueprint that is expected to help the country attain its vision 2030 goals in food security and nutrition. However, anyone well-versed with the challenges facing agriculture in the country will notice that it does not address crucial issues that affect agriculture in the country. For example, it says little on how the government can tackle the problem of soil fertility in the country. Clearly the draft has failed to identify the elephant in the room.

The condition of our soils is so bad that farmers are harvesting as a low as 5 bags of maize an acre in places where they used to harvest 30 bags in the 70s in the 80s. Soil health is the foundation of agricultural development in the country, so there is no way the government can address the problem of food security in the country without addressing the deteriorating condition of our soils, yet this is what the new agricultural policy intends to do.

Prolonged use of chemical fertilizers

Many years of chemical fertilizer use in the maize growing areas in Kenya’s maize and sugar belts have rendered the soils unsuitable for agriculture unless drastic measures are taken to reverse the situation. Chemical fertilizers such as the Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), urea and CAN have been overused yet most farmers continue using them for lack of knowledge on their proper use.

The increasing population and land subdivision continues to exert great pressure on soils as farmers strive to produce food in order to feed the extra mouths. It is imperative that the government puts in place a comprehensive policy framework on soil fertility management which ensures that soil fertility in all farming areas in the country are restored in order to increase productivity, improve food security improve farmers earnings.

Need for soil testing

When President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Kenya Soil Suitability Evaluation for Maize Production at Egerton University last year, there was at least a glimmer of hope that finally the government was doing something about the problem of soil fertility. Soils in 44 counties had been mapped and nutrients that were deficient in each agricultural region identified. The report had established that there was serious soil degradation in most farming areas and advised on the suitable fertilizers that needed to be used to correct the deficiencies.

Even before this report, the government had crafted another report the” Strategy for Revitalising Agriculture 2004-2014” which identified low and declining soil fertility as one of the major factors hampering the growth of agriculture in the country. From these reports, it is clear that there is need for a national policy on soil fertility management to mainstream soil fertility in the country’s agricultural development agenda.

Regulate fertilizer industry

As the situation stands now, there are conflicting legal and regulatory provisions that need to revised and harmonized. For example, there is no regulatory body that supervises the manufacture, blending and distribution of fertilizers in the country.

In this environment, farmers cannot be able to tell the quality of fertilizers they buy; even a hardware shop can sell fertilizers since there is no authority that can vet and licence qualified dealers to sell the commodity. Middlemen have taken advantage of ignorant farmers and mix anything that resembles fertilizer in backstreet “factories” which is later packaged in bags obtained from local fertilizer companies and sold to farmers.

If you read the Fertilizers and Foodstuffs Act (CAP 345), the regulations of fertilizers has been put under the purview of the Director of Veterinary Services (DVS)! Our good lawmakers did not see the sense in assigning the role to the Director of Agriculture. In the same Act, organic fertilizers or biofertilizers, compost and farmyard manures are not recognized as fertilizer despite their obvious importance in agriculture in the country.

Exploitation of farmers

Up to now many farmers across the country do not know where to take their soil samples for testing since there are no soil testing laboratories near them. Realizing there is a big problem soil testing facilities, a number of NGOs and even companies have taken the initiative to do soil testing for farmers, but the quality of the services is worrying because there is no regulatory authority which can set the standards on the parameters that need to be tested, leave alone the quality of the equipment used. The results of such tests are questionable because expertise is needed to do calibration for the soil test kits being used to ensure they give correct analyses.

While the National Agricultural Laboratories charge Ksh 1000 for every sample being tested, most of the NGOs charge Ksh 4000 to test one sample; in most cases some of the NGOs do not even have any testing kits and all they do is to bring such samples to KALRO Laboratories where they pay Ksh 1000 and then pass the results to the farmer who is forced to fork Ksh 4000.

Improve soil conservation

Back in 1970s and 1980s, the Ministry of Agriculture used to have a department specifically for water and soil conservation, which ensured that farmers in all hilly areas were trained on proper methods of soil and water conservation to stop soil erosion.

The department ceased operations when donor funds dried up in late 1990s. Now the soil degradation in most hilly areas is catastrophic, millions of tonnes of soil are being washed down into rivers every season. The situation has been made worse by illegal human settlements in water catchment areas where most rivers are now choked in silt and dried up altogether.

Let the government sort out basic problems that affect agriculture first and all else can follow.

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Peter Kamau an Editor of ‘The Organic Farmer’, a farmers’ magazine published by International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Kamau has wide experience in covering farmer stories; their challenges and successes in food security and wealth creation through farming. The information carried in this article does not necessary reflect the views of BvAT.

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I was recently invited to a workshop where results of a study on factors influencing household adoption of renewable energy technologies in rural Kenya by the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND). The study was commissioned with support from KIRDI and the Swedish Embassy in Kenya.