Calls for Action to Save Ruined Sugar Belt Soils

tall grass field
The Standard
Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
Calls for Action to Save Ruined Sugar Belt Soils

Like many a farmer in Mumias East Constituency, Sixtus Tiemeri Musebe has not heard of Jagadish “Jaggi” Vasudev (Sadhguru).

But one thing he and the Indian spiritual leader agree on is that soils are losing fertility and need to replenished. “Since the sugarcane sector went under, I shifted to cultivating maize, Napier grass and bananas. The harvest is not as good because the soils have been depleted courtesy of mono-cropping. My three-acres had not known another crop since 1960s when I was a contracted sugarcane farmer for Mumias Sugar Company,” says Musebe.

In 2018, he benefitted from an NGO campaign that encouraged soil restoration by giving farmers in Migori, Siaya, Kakamega, Kisumu, Nandi, Vihiga, Bungoma, Busia and Homa Bay traditional soil neutralizer lime.

This, according to soils scientist Dr. Caroline Kundu, was to help neutralize acidity and improve yields following outcry from farmers who had quit growing sugarcane.

“Soil acidity causes an increase of exchangeable aluminum, which masks plant roots and prevents uptake of phosphorus, calcium and magnesium and even inhibits root growth,” says Dr. Kundu, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization's deputy director.

“There were low yields due to, among other things, poor soil structure, limited supply of soil nutrients and acidity of soil,” he said.

The problem was at its peak between 2014 and 2018, when there were more cases of people encroaching on forest lands to farm, knowing soils in the forests were more fertile.

Dr. Kundu attributes the trend to the richer organic content in forest soils; for optimum harvests, soil must contain a minimum of 3-6% organic content.

Sadhguru, who spoke at the ongoing 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Abidjan, said preventing soil extinction was crucial. He called on “concrete implementable action” to raise organic content in agricultural soils to a minimum 3%.

Sadhguru, who is on a 100-day, 30,000-km lone motorcycle #JourneyForSoil, since March 21 from London, returns to the Middle East immediately after the event to resume his journey. He reached the Middle-East in May riding through Europe and Central Asia, where his Movement to Save Soil earned tremendous goodwill and support from governments and citizens.

Sadhguru was taken aback by the poor attitude that 85% of the world population still views soil as an inert substance. “With such an attitude, we will not fix the soil,” he said.

He said soil degradation was largely an effect of reduced photosynthesis – a phenomenon by which plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to release oxygen into the atmosphere. “In the last 1,000 years, photosynthesis has reduced by 5%, leading to an annual extinction rate of 27,000 species of soil microorganisms that depend on carbon to survive,” he said.

“At this rate, in another 30 to 35 years, we will not be able to turn it around because we would have reached that point of no return.”

He cited the Global Outlook report by the UNCCD, which estimates that around 71% of the planet’s land is either wholly or partially farmed, saying the situation makes the farmer the primary protagonist in the Movement to Save Soil.

He advocated for governments, industries and consumers across the world to give farmers incentives to ensure that their farmlands have a minimum of 3% organic content. Sadhguru said: “This COP must end with action in such a way that it is implementable and we will see a distinct change in the coming few years.”

Musebe believes the ideas can work in Kenya. “We don’t get anyone to advise us on farming or even test our soils,” he says.

He recalls when Mumias Sugar company would test farmers’ soils, till, weed, supply seed cane and fertilizer, harvest cane then deduct the cost when paying farmers. “Today it costs Sh5,000 per acre,” he says.

Dr. Kundu wishes the Indian soil activist could take his cycling activism to Africa. “The Global Yield Gap statistics show huge yield gaps of the 13 major food crops, traced to poor soils. Africa is hard hit, so we need the activist to spread the word on soil restoration,” she said.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 UNCCD Virtual Reporting Fellowship, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It was originally published in The Standard on May 31st, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A sugarcane field / Credit: Hồ Ngọc Hải via Unsplash.

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