Toulmin: "Soil is the foundation for a prosperous society"

IIED director Camilla Toulmin tells the BBC's Science in Action that much of the soil across sub-Saharan Africa needs urgent attention if it is to feed the continent.

News, 10 December 2014

Neglect of agriculture, population pressures and poor farming techniques are leading to a continuous decline in the health of African soils, according to a report published last week by the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European scientists.

Among its key findings were that 65 per cent of the soil across sub-Saharan Africa is now so degraded that it needs urgent attention, if it is to grow the crops needed to feed the continent, and the economic loss this causes is estimated to be around US$68 billion per year.

On 5 December, World Soil Day, IIED director Camilla Toulmin also the co-chair of the Montpellier Panel – was interviewed for a BBC World Service Science in Action programme discussing the condition of soil.

Ahead of the International Year of Soils in 2015, she warned that if soil does not get greater attention, it will make it much tougher to feed Africa's growing population. 

"The Montpellier Panel report throws light on a rather neglected topic, which is the ground beneath our feet the soil on which we grow our crops and which is really the foundation for a prosperous society both in rural and urban areas," said Toulmin.

"Sometimes people don't really think very much about soil, it's just that brown stuff in a field. But if you get soil management wrong you get famine, you get hunger, you get rising food prices and you get social collapse ultimately.

"The report shows that, in many parts of Africa, soils have been over-worked without enough investment back in terms of organic matter and also the nutrients which are absolutely key to help plants thrive, and flourish and give good yields. That's partly because some of these soils are old and weathered and in other places haven’t been given the kind of maintenance and investment that would keep them in good health."

She added: "It is reckoned that soil degradation costs around US$68 billion per year in terms of the foregone yield in the decline in fertility of that soil."

In the interview, Toulmin also discusses what makes a healthy soil, what farmers can do to enhance soils, and the impacts of climate change on soil.

"With the warming of the atmosphere, we are seeing lots more torrential rain," she said. "Rain is coming down in much harsher, more intense downpours, and that makes soil much more vulnerable to erosion, and being washed away by these big floods, so protecting soil from that either through vegetation or the building of terraces is pretty critical."

This interview originally featured on the BBC World Service's Science in Action programme. Listen to the full programme.