AgTalks: How fertilisers can improve smallholder farmers lives

Written by Francesco Far

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.

 ©IFAD/Giulio Napolitano
This session brought together  three experts in field of fertilisers working with smallholder farmers:  Nicole M. Mason, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University (MSU); Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, Senior Manager, Social Responsibility, and Executive Director, The Mosaic Company Foundation at The Mosaic Company; and Pablo Tittonell, professor of the Farming Systems Ecology group at Wageningen University.

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.

©IFAD/Giulio Napolitano
Ms Niedfeldt-Thomas pointed out in her intervention that access to crop nutrients and training in their use have a tremendous potential for improvements in smallholders’ lives. Through examples from her experience in India, Guatemala and Africa she highlighted how agronomic knowledge can bring higher yields, which means higher income and steps towards 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.

©IFAD/Giulio Napolitano
After their interventions, the three experts engaged in a panel discussion and answered questions from the floor. One of the points raised during the discussion was about the definition of fertilisers. Some of the audience was under the impression that the speakers neglected organic fertilisers, focusing only on industrial ones. All three speakers agreed that fertilisers are not only mineral, but also organic and their properties are the same. So, their integrated use is fundamental in addressing the issue of soil fertility.

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.