By Natasha Foote
Soil health is at the heart of the EU’s new Green Deal and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, both of which aim to tackle biodiversity loss, reverse climate change and support sustainable land use.
Most recently, the EU adopted a soil strategy designed to offer an overarching policy framework for soil restoration, including plans for a soil health law by 2023.
But despite gaining increasing policy recognition, soils are in a sorry state across the world. According to current estimates, 33% of the Earth’s soils are already degraded while more than 90% are at risk of becoming degraded by 2050.
One way in which farmers are working to address these issues is via no-till, or reduced-till, agriculture.
A key component of the so-called Conservation Agriculture (CA), this practice involves planting crops without tilling the soil, which is the conventional way of preparing the soil for planting by digging, stirring, and turning it over.
While tilling kills unwanted plants and allows for easier planting, it is costly and time-consuming and can lower the quality of the soil through soil compaction and erosion.
“No-till farming is an excellent soil conservation practice that’s been proven to help reduce soil erosion and runoff,” Barbra Muzata, head of communications for agrochemical company Corteva Africa Middle East, said.
As part of the company’s 2030 Sustainability Goals, she is involved in a number of projects intended to educate farmers on best practices, including soil health, and nutrients and water stewardship.
“Farmers are practising conservation agriculture on large-scale farms to improve soil fertility, increase yields, and boost profits,” she added.
One innovative tool that can be used to reduce reliance on tilling is ripping.
Ripping mechanically breaks up compacted soil layers using heavy tynes or blades which break up compacted soil layers but crucially, unlike tilling, without turning them over.
According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), one of the main benefits of ripping is that it can help to break up the hardpan which results from traditional ploughing year after year, thus improving water infiltration and soil moisture.
This can improve crop productivity and build resilience to both drought and flood conditions in a way that also reduces soil erosion and degradation.
Despite the potential benefits that ripping technology holds, its uptake has been slow and access to such technology remains low in some areas of the world, such as across East Africa.
As such, a number of public-private partnerships have sprung up with the aim to encourage innovative techniques to promote the use of conservation agriculture and showcase to farmers the advantage of climate-smart farming.
One such project, spearheaded by several private players including Corteva and agricultural machinery companies John Deere and Hello Tractor, together with civil society organisations such as PAFID (Participatory Approaches for Integrated Development), is soon to be underway in Narok, Kenya, after several setbacks due to weather and COVID-related complications.
The project, coordinated by CGIAR and funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), envisages four demonstration plots aimed at showcasing how ripping technology can improve agricultural productivity, resilience, and soil carbon storage.
A key innovation of this project is the integration of minimum till tractor services into a digital platform service for booking and routing tractors, created by agro-tech company Hello Tractor, enabling tractor providers to add ripping to the services they provide.
In this way, the project aims to broaden access to ripping services, including to smallholder farmers, according to CGIAR.
Moses Abukari, programme manager with the East and Southern Africa region at IFAD, said this is especially important given that, as it stands, the seasonal demand from farmers for conservation agriculture services is “increasing and currently outstripping the providers’ capacities due to limited equipment”.
Such programmes also have a lot of potential to generate employment and incomes while bringing multiple benefits to farmers, he said.
Experience shows that such programmes can also be especially beneficial for women, Abukari added.
This is because the conservation agriculture services are “time and labour-saving” but also because they boost crop production with “little or no soil disturbance and help conserve inputs,” he said.
According to Abukari, the next step is to build on the sustainability of the project, which includes ensuring that service providers are registered and can “build a credit history to access financing from banks to buy more equipment”.
Regulation is needed, he explained, to ensure the standardisation and quality control of the appropriate technology.
“Local equipment manufacturers need to be set up but they can’t progress without having first public investment in CA equipment, including the capacity building of farmers and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) providers,” Abukari added.