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Repairing fragile soils

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SANCHEZ—Bare soil guarantees runoff

Malawi envisages attaining the status of a vibrant knowledge-based economy with a strong and competitive manufacturing industry that is driven by a productive and commercially vibrant agriculture and mining sector.

Reading from Malawi 2063 – the national development blueprint – one can see Malawians who are determined to pull in one direction towards achieving an inclusively wealthy and self-reliant, industrialised upper-middle-income nation by the year 2063, so they can fund their development needs primarily by themselves.

But is this mountain going to be an easy one to climb?

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“Certainly not!” says Professor Pedro Sanchez of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Florida in the United States.

Sanchez observed that declining soil health poses a serious threat to agricultural development in Malawi, which is the main pillar in the envisaged attainment of Mw2063.

He made the observations during his recent presentations at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and at the 7th session of the Ndizotheka Eminent Speaker Series in Lilongwe.

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Mwapata Institute in conjunction with the National Planning Commission, which is mandated to lead in medium and long-term national development planning and overseeing implementation of the plans, have been organizing a series of panel discussions to solicit public views and opinions on the implementation of Mw2063.

Sanchez said soil loss is one of the major threats to agricultural development in Malawi and since the Malawi economy is largely dependent on agriculture, loss of soil, especially from the farmlands, could also play a major hindrance to the overall economic development of the country.

He said not only does soil loss reduce the cultivable soil depth but also takes away the fertile soils from the farmlands.

“Most Malawi soils are now unhealthy because they have been depleted of nutrients. Bare soil guarantees runoff and erosion at the start of the rains,” he said.

An unidentified soil expert, in his article titled ‘The economic impact of soil and nutrient loss in Malawi’, which was published in 2018, says soil loss has potential to disrupt the natural soil balance.

And this may lead to decrease in the productive potential of agricultural land, with some consequences being a decrease in yield per unit of applied inputs, loss of income and profit to the farmer, reduction in crop and livestock farming activities, drop in the value of the agricultural land, pollution and destruction of water resources and public assets, migration of rural populations to urban areas.

“Given the size of the agriculture sector in the Malawian economy, soil and nutrient loss represents a major limitation to the overall economic development. It results into loss of agricultural productivity, increased expenditure on fertilisers, and a general decline in profitability of crop production,” reads the article in part.

The Government of Malawi and its development partners have attempted many approaches to soil loss control and soil conservation efforts in different parts of the country with varying degrees of success.

These efforts include contour ploughing, ridging, vetivar grass strips, conservation agriculture, crop rotation and manure application, among others.

However, Sanchez emphasised that the success or failure of these efforts in controlling soil loss needs to be evaluated over periods of time in order to provide room for improvement or opportunities for scaling up.

He said time-series assessment of soil loss combined with a monitoring framework gives the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of these control measures.

He observed that presently, there is inadequate information on the trends of soil loss and any monitoring framework, which the Government of Malawi can use to assess the effectiveness of its efforts towards the control of soil loss in the country.

The last time a study attempted to establish a time-series assessment of soil loss in Malawi was between 2000 and 2014 when it was discovered that the annual national average soil loss rate was estimated at 29 ton per hectare.

At the time, the Northern Regions registered moderate soil loss rates, ranging between 0.4 and 39 ton per hectare per year, with contributing factors in the region being topography, as there are many steep slopes, fragile and shallow soil types, erosion caused by high rainfall, and poor soil management practices.

The Southern Region, on the other hand, was found to have had declining soil loss rates between 2000 and 2014, with soil loss rates falling to less than 10 ton per hectare per year by the end of that period.

The study identified two main factors behind Malawi’s high soil loss rates: fragile soils on steep slopes and erosive rainfall. Human activities also exacerbated these factors.

Engaging in agricultural activities in fragile soils or steep slopes has also played a large role in increasing the rate of soil loss.

The expansion of Malawi’s agricultural land at the cost of natural forest cover has steadily reduced vegetation cover and exposed more soil to the country’s erosive rainfall.

In addition, sustainable land management policies have not been adequately implemented to protect vegetation cover and ensure the sustainable use of non-renewable natural resources.

In his presentation titled ‘Surmounting Soil Health Challenges: Practical Solutions for Enhancing Agricultural Productivity in Line with Mw2063 Aspirations’, Associate Professor Patson Nalivata agreed with Sanchez’s observation that agricultural transformation is vital in the country’s vision of creating an inclusively wealthy and self-reliant nation.

Nalivata therefore recommended the enhancement of good and appropriate agricultural production interventions, promoting the adoption of climate smart agricultural technologies, good land management practices and environment management.

“Some of the released technologies, with a consideration of an integrated approach include legume intensification, use of bio-fertilisers (inoculants), bio-inorganic fertilisers, soil and water conservation management practices that include conservation agriculture and organic resources [organic fertilisers] that encompass compost manure, livestock manure and live mulches,” he explained.

Nalivata further recommended the intensification of leguminous crops and agroforestry plant species to improve soil health through biological nitrogen fixation and addition of soil organic matter.

He said studies on evaluating intercropping systems and effects of legumes short-rotations have established that positive soil health increased yield results.

“Maize yield increases of above 50 percent have been reported from integration of legume residual effects and half the rate of recommended fertiliser with implication on reducing the costs incurred on inorganic fertiliser,” he said.

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