Helping farmers to improve their soils

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Basel / New York, October 21st, 2020 - Smallholder farmers are the cornerstone of food security in Africa, yet they have extremely low incomes that are vulnerable to weather extremes and volatile market prices. Their marginal financial position often prevents them from investing in sustainable agriculture techniques, even when these could improve their bottom line. Farmers know that soil health is key to agricultural productivity and resilience – and governments, philanthropies, and NGOs know it has a major role to play in environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation. An existing toolset of practices and technologies can prevent soil degradation and increase soil health, yet smallholder farmers only sparingly integrate these into their operations.

What will it take for soil-enhancing practices to be adopted at scale and to deliver productivity and resilience benefits to smallholder farmers and air, water, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas benefits to society at large? Our latest publication in Frontiers for Sustainable Food Systems highlights the absence of near-term, farm-level incentives and proposes that agricultural development initiatives should carefully analyze monetizable benefits, as well as technical suitability, before promoting specific practices or technologies.

“Through the Syngenta Foundation’s work with smallholders, we see that return on investment is essential to farmer adoption,” notes study co-author, Dominik Klauser, “and ROI at the farm-level depends on real improvements in yield and lower costs of production.” When such benefits do not accrue within a single growing season, external incentives – such as subsidies, direct payments, or insurance – will almost certainly be needed for farmers to accept the risk of switching from the status quo

“In developed countries, farmers’ incentives are greatly influenced by public sector policies and subsidies, and their knowledge base for estimating the ROI of improved soil management is tremendous due to public and private research investments. It’s a very different story in developing countries where gaps in agronomic and market information make it difficult to estimate real-world ROI,” says co-author Christine Negra. She adds, “Of course, continuous investment in farmer-participatory research and robust regional datasets and models is essential to identifying which combination of practices is truly capable of delivering benefits, on- and off-farm, in specific places.”

Current farming practices in many parts of the developing world degrade agricultural soils, eroding productivity, and increasing farmers’ risk from extreme weather and other climate change threats. This paper offers global donors, agricultural development program implementers, and public sector partners a menu of the value chain, policy, and finance strategies for increasing smallholders’ incentives to adopt soil-enhancing practices.

Read the study