A revisit of the topic on Soil Health versus Soil Fertility in the context of the recent African Union Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit

The month of May, 2024 is here and almost gone. A key highlight of the month was the recent African Union (AU) Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit held in Nairobi on 7 – 9 May which informs the topic of this month’s blog article.

This Summit has informed a revisit of the topic of Soil Health versus Soil Fertility and the major difference between the two; What is the difference between the two?

  • The article tries to explain the differences between the two…focusing on educating the lay person; the farmer practitioner…not the scientists or so called professionals, who often confuse the lay person by equating synthetic fertilizer soil fertility with Soil Health. This article clarifies that soil fertility is not the same as soil health: Soil health precedes and creates soil fertility.
  • Various agroecology practitioners, including Bridget Mugambe of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and Peter Mokaya, an independent Agroecology and Public Health Expert, highlight the folly of focusing on fossil fuel chemically manufactured synthetic fertilizers to increase soil fertility instead of shifting to the use of sustainable agroecological soil microbial enrichment inputs to improve soil health, which in turn creates soil fertility.
  • The two agroecological experts highlight the flaws in the AU Fertilizer Action Plan, giving examples that punch holes in the 10- year Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan 2023-2033.

‘At the recent African Union (AU) Fertilizer & Soil Health Summit in Nairobi on 7-9 May, African leaders unveiled the new 10-year Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan 2023-2033. Designed to maintain soil fertility and ensure soil health across the continent, the roadmap adopts an approach that combines both chemical and organic fertilisers with improved seeds and agrochemicals.

The plan aims to “significantly increase investments in the local manufacturing and distribution of mineral and organic fertilizers, biofertilizers and biostimulants” and to “triple fertilizer use from 18 kg/ha in 2020 nutrients to 54 kg/ha in 2033”.

Aspects of the 10-year action plan suggest a shift from quick chemical fixes to sustainable practices that enhance biodiversity, regenerate the land, and empower local communities. However, while this hints at a more hopeful imagined future, policymakers at the Nairobi summit largely skirted around the deeper issues at stake. The focus remained narrowly on the production and distribution of predominantly chemical fertilisers, while largely neglecting their broader social, economic, and ecological impacts.

While the spotlight was on increasing fertiliser use, for instance, the sustained health of the soil that feeds us was all but overlooked. Our soils are not merely depleted – they are in crisis. And decades of reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides have not only failed to address this crisis but have exacerbated it, leading to acidification, erosion, and loss of essential microbial diversity. This damage calls for a radical rethink of the use of nitrogen fertilisers and our agricultural practices. We need to move beyond adding more fertilisers towards healing the soil…(emphasis is mine)

  • How do we heal the soil and solve the problem of ‘soil sickness’ from wrongly focusing on MORE use of synthetic chemical fertilizers to increase soil fertility, in the short term, while destroying soil health in the long run?
  • For starters, here is a self-explanatory short video by Dr. Elaine Ingham, which explains the difference between Soil and Dirt. Soil is enriched by stimulating soil microorganisms to, first enrich the soil, then create soil fertility. Overuse of synthetic fertilizers, also called mineral fertilizers, converts rich soils into unproductive dirt, which has no living organisms.
  • Have a listen to the video:
  • Are there any local examples of previously dead soils (almost dirt), which have been regenerated into rich healthy soils by stimulating and supporting the biological life of the soil infrastructure?
  • Yes: Munyaka Meadows Organic Farm is one such local example on the outskirts of Nairobi: Four years ago Munyaka Farm, was an almost barren piece of 5 acre land which fits the description which Bridget Mugambe depicts of the state of most African soils…desolate with hardly any farm produce suffering from depleted soils….from overuse of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
  • After 4 years of consistent and gradual use of agroecological organic inputs, including biofertilizers that stimulate the growth of soil microbials, the farm is now a rich tapestry of mixed crop and animal farm produce that not only feeds the family with nutrient rich foods but with some to spare for sale, to generate income.
  • Here is a short video of Munyaka Meadows Organic Farm in its current state:
  • More videos of Munyaka Meadows Organic Farm can be found in the April 2024 Blog article series (see article before this one).

  • Going forward, we need to educate all stakeholders along the value chain, including the policy makers and synthetic fertilizer manufacturers, to shift from use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to more use of agroecological soil enriching farm inputs, which include local plant and animal decaying matter and/ or organic waste products together with related biofertilizers. These inputs enrich the soils and contribute to sustainable soil health…not just transient soil fertility improvement!
  • As a Public Health physician and agroecology practitioner, schooled in Systems Thinking and Practice, I cannot conclude this month’s article without pointing out the significance of improving soil health in mitigating and providing a ‘quadruple solution’ to the four major crises of our times. Which are these crises?
  • They include the crises of Food insecurity and Hunger; Soil Degradation and Biodiversity loss; Climate Change/Climate Crisis AND the increasing burden of noncommunicable diseases, including cancers and diabetes.
  • Thank you for making time to read this article. Share and take action.