Soil health is commonly defined as the ability to generate sufficient crop yields while maintaining the future productive capacity of soils and the ecosystem services soils regulate and deliver. However, less consensus exists on indicators to assess soil health and its changes over time and space, although soil organic carbon (SOC) is generally acknowledged as a key indicator. In the context of this paper, soil health status is equated with SOC status. Current SOC conditions are influenced by soil properties and climate. Under smallholder farming conditions, SOC is variable and affected by past crop and soil management practices, which are influenced by farmer typology. Although SOC content under cropland is a maximum of 60-70% of that under natural vegetation, there is substantial scope to increase it in smallholder farming conditions.
A conceptual framework relating to fertilizer, crop productivity, and soil health is presented here. While fertilizer application commonly results in a substantial increase in crop yield at various scales, a key indicator of fertilizer use, agronomic efficiency (AE), is often observed to be lower than relatively easily achievable values under well-managed conditions, caused by a diversity of factors. Low AE values do not necessarily result in greater greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of the low fertilizer application rates in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), though increases in GHG emissions are likely with increases in fertilizer use.
Crop response to organic inputs is substantially lower although organic inputs increase SOC content, which usually results in greater AE values relative to sole application of fertilizer. Increases in crop productivity are associated with increases in SOC, though the relationship is weak and efforts besides fertilizer application itself are required. That said, N(PK) fertilizer has had a positive effect on SOC in most parts of the world except SSA, an observation corroborated by an analysis of past and ongoing long-term experiments, likely related to the low and erratic use of fertilizer in the region. While fertilizer use can be an entry point to increasing soil health, this will not likely happen on degraded soils where responses to fertilizer are limited. In such cases, investments to rehabilitate degraded soils should come first.
Several approaches can be followed to determine best fertilizer recommendations, while recognizing nutrients needs by crops and soil-specific properties. Site-specificity commonly requires an assessment of the soil fertility status of a particular field, and analytical tools now allow for the development of locally relevant recommendations at scale with some early successes. While organic inputs do positively impact SOC, attractive options to increase organic inputs in smallholder farming systems are limited and mostly related to in-situ production, with an important emphasis on multi-purpose legumes. Climate adaptation is facilitated by healthy soils and requires fertilizer to be combined with other crop, soil, and water management practices (Wortmann and Stewart, 2021).
While low yields are linked to the ecological yield gap, whereby the potential productivity of crops is set by biological factors, input and output prices determine the economic yield gap, which is usually quite lower than the former because of unfavorable ratio of fertilizer prices to crop product prices. Even though profitability is a key driver of impact, many other factors affect the adoption of appropriate fertilizer and soil health recommendations, including farmers’ production objectives, resource endowment, land tenure, and access to markets.
A main bottleneck in engaging smallholder farmers in soil health-restoring practices is the relatively large amount of time such practices take to deliver benefits that are visible to farmers. In the absence of incentive programs, farmers require short-term benefits, generated within their farming systems. Furthermore, associated advice on complementary practices to fertilizer use increases the complexity of information to be conveyed to farmers. Scaling models have moved toward the delivery of bundled services, often digitally enabled, to address challenges with communicating complex information and the necessary complementary crop and soil management practices. Targeted policy interventions can support the delivery of broad digitally enabled fertilizer management recommendations and the creation of conditions that enable smallholder farmers to implement these recommendations at scale.
A number of recommendations have been generated from the scientific information, covered under the following headings: (1) key elements of a Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan; (2) development of quantitative indicators and targets of soil health; (3) addressing climate change requires choices; (4) incentivizing farmers; (5) soil health investments, which require localized actions (think global, act local); and (6) not only fertilizers, but also auxiliary interventions, as defined by the Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) approach. Action is needed today to reverse the downward spiral of low and inefficient fertilizer use, resulting in low yields and declining soil health.
Citation: Vanlauwe, Bernard, Tilahun Amede, André Bationo, Prem Bindraban, Henk Breman, Remi Cardinael, Antoine Couedel, Pauline Chivenge, Marc Corbeels, Achim Dobermann, Gatien Falconnier, Wole Fatunbi, Ken Giller, Rebbie Harawa, Mercy Kamau, Roel Merckx, Cheryl Palm, David Powlson, Leonard Rusinamhodz, Johan Six, Upendra Singh, Zachary Stewart, Martin van Ittersum, Christian Witt, Shamie Zingore, and Rob Groot. 2023. Fertilizer and Soil Health in Africa: The Role of Fertilizer in Building Soil Health to Sustain Farming and Address Climate Change. International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), Muscle Shoals, AL.