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Climate Change: Improving Soil Fertility is Key to Increasing Food Security


Climate change has increased temperatures and low rainfall has seen a decrease in the land biomass which sustains soil fertility. For residents of Taita Taveta county, Kenya, this has meant low yields and fuelling food insecurity as reported

Leaning heavily on his walking stick; Sixty- five- year- old Elsafan Mwachuga slowly trods up the steps of a local hotel in Werugha village, for a conversation with climate change experts.

A farmer since childhood, Mwachuga bemoans the low harvest of his ten acre farm gently perched on the vast undulating Taita hills, located on Kenya’s Coastal region.

“For the last three years, we have experienced a lot of changes in the weather. And we have seen more pests such as stalk borers eat up the maize completely, and the small streams that supply water in areas such as Yale completely dry,” he says.

“In the 1970’s we would plant without fertilizers but now because of the erratic weather we are forced to use them,” adds Mwachuga ruefully.

Indeed, climate change experts note that increased temperatures and low rainfall has seen a decrease in the land biomass which sustains soil fertility not only in the Taita hills but in most parts of Kenya resulting in low yields and fuelling food insecurity.

A major challenge is the lack of awareness among farming communities of the links between soil fertility and the diverse livelihood problems that they are facing as they struggle to adapt to climate change, noted a report on Participatory Action Research and Integrated Soil Fertility Management by the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) research and capacity development program.

“For many farmers like Mwachuga, ignorance coupled with low household income limits their access to soil testing facilities and aeration materials such as fertilisers,” said Crispus Mugambi, a soil scientist with the Kenya Agricultural, Livestock and Research Organisation (KARLO) working under the Climate Change Impacts on Ecosystem services and food Security in Eastern Africa (CHIESA) project run by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).

He attributes soil infertility in the Taita hills to soil erosion, poor land management practises in crop harvest export, poor livestock keeping and low leguminous crop cover.

Soil fertility is a function of quiet a number of things, explains Mugambi: how the farmers manage the field, the topography of the field and the parent rock material. And in Taita hills soil fertility rises and falls with altitude, the higher you go the more fertile the soils are as there is more vegetation and rainfall.

The ideal situation for farmers like Mwachuga, would be to perform soil tests on their farms before planting but few can afford it, said Mugambi. Time is also a factor as most of the soil labs are concentrated in urban centres such as Nairobi which would mean extra expenses for the farmer and delays in relaying results.

The linkages between soil fertility and climate change adaptation prove to be less obvious to farmers; extension agencies and local leaders cites the CCAA report, underscoring the need to enlighten this group on the beneficial impacts of Integrated Soil Fertility Management measures through facilitation of participatory on-farm adaptive experiments.

Integrated Soil Fertility Management is the combination of a proven set of concepts, principles and practices that lead to the efficient use of available organic and inorganic resources to maintain or improve soil fertility, thus leading to sustainable crop production for household food and income security, as well as enhanced livelihoods, the report noted.

To improve soil fertility farmers in Taita and in most parts of Kenya need to intercrop legumes and practise agroforestry. Legumes and leguminous trees have short seasons and can do well in low rainfall; it’s no longer viable to just plant maize, explained Mugambi.

Climate change is a continuous process and it’s going to take many years. The communities are aware of these elements of climate change and they are trying on their own to cope and come up with strategies and adaptations like changing their planting seasons, like planting new varieties of crops and so on, explained Dr.Brigitte Nyambo, who handles communication and information dissemination pertaining to the CHIESA project.

“What we are doing with the sort of research under CHIESA is to see how can we fast track the process if we come up with new knowledge and share it with the farmers and try to add value to already what is existing among the farmers,” she added.

The four year CHIESA project in its final phase, aims at making comparisons on the impact of climate change on food security and livelihoods in three East African countries - Kenya’s Taita hills, Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro and Ethiopia’s Jimma highlands - through modern automated weather stations set up in those areas.

“These places have plants that are good indicators of climate change and biodiversity. So by observing them, we can tell if climatic conditions are changing in those regions. If so, then we will determine strategies to put on the ground, to ensure sustainable food production is not compromised in future,” explained Dr. Nyambo.

She notes that in Kenya, they will examine crops such as maize, cabbages and kales. They will also look at avocados in Tanzania and coffee in Ethiopia, since those crops have regional and international market demands.

The project is a research and development project aimed at increasing knowledge, building capacity and developing adaptation strategies to climate change impacts in Eastern Africa. It is funded by the Finish Foreign Affairs government and will be conducted in collaboration with local universities in the three countries.

Article cited from: http://goo.gl/eXlZ6d