Written by Francesco Farnè
If you don’t know about AgTalks, you are missing a riveting new series of events organised by IFAD with the aim of presenting the human face of family farming by sharing the latest policy and innovation research findings, as well as different viewpoints on smallholder farming.
Through the series we are putting forward the latest thinking, trends and research on policies and innovations in small-scale family farming.
As you may know, the UN has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. And earlier in the month, on the eve of the World Soil Day, we at IFAD had the honour and pleasure to host the launch of the Montpellier Panel report "No Ordinary Matter: conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soils".
As the International Year of Family Farming comes to an end and we embark to celebrate the International Years of Soils, on 11 December, we hosted the second session of Agtalks which focused on the topic of soils, fertilisers and their relations with smallholder family farms.
Dr Mason talked about the importance of fertilisers for Africa. She painted a vivid picture of two Zambian farmers, Bernard and Matimaba–one whose farm had government funded fertiliser subsidies and the other who did not. This was how she introduced the audience to the current African policies on fertilisers, underlining their weaknesses and contradictions and supporting her thesis through many other smallholder farmers’ stories from her personal experience in Africa. She talked about the importance of putting in place efficient policies as the way to take smallholder families out of poverty and ensure food security.
Mr Tittonell focused his intervention on soil and its organic matter. Soil organic matter is only 5% of the soil, but it makes the difference between an arid sand desert and a fertile valley. To underline this, he showed the audience some soils samples, explaining the characteristics of a healthy soil. He also talked about why it is crucial to preserve organic matter through conservation practices in agriculture (e.g. avoiding soil tillage; preserving permanent soil cover; favouring crop diversification). Conservation agriculture plays an important role in preserving soil from degradation, but, even though some evidence shows that it can help, restoring soil organic matter in deteriorated lands remains an open question.
The second session of AgTalks session raised issues such as the need for a holistic and long term approach. And it made a positive contribution to the debate on such issues, presenting a unique opportunity to make the necessary linkages between smallholder farmers and soil preservation.