Caring for Ethiopian Soils – taking stock on World Soil Day

Soil health and fertility, and efforts to improve and ensure both, are critical components of the sustainable intensification and transformation of Ethiopia’s agriculture. On December 5th, World Soil Day, the ATA profiles and recognizes the valuable work being done to care for Ethiopian soils, the foundation from which all farming is made possible.

Ethiopia’s second five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II), launched in 2015, recognizes that the country’s natural resource base, including its soils, must be cared for in order to sustain and support growth in agricultural activities. Agriculture, one of the biggest sectors in Ethiopia, accounts for nearly 40% of GDP, 70% of employment, and provides the basis on which the country will be able to meet its food security and industrialization ambitions.

The state of Ethiopian soils

More than 19 different soil types have been identified across Ethiopia’s diverse agro-ecologies. The majority of these soils have long suffered from nutrient mining, high acidity or salinity, and erosion, following centuries of subsistence-oriented, low-input, low-output agricultural practices. Soils in Ethiopian highlands, for example, which cover 40% of the country and are a major agricultural zone, demonstrate low levels of organic carbon, due in large part to insufficient use of organic inputs, excessive tillage, over grazing, and deforestation. Similar stories are true for soils in other parts of the country, where traditional farming practices have depleted soils of nutrients critical for increased crop productivity, thus undermining the development of the sector and the livelihoods of farming households.

In addition to problems of fertility, a significant portion of Ethiopian soils are affected by high levels of acidity or salinity. Soil acidity is estimated to affect 43% of agricultural land in Ethiopia’s three major crop producing regions (Amhara, Oromia and SNNP) and a total of 28% of total arable land across the country, frequently reducing potential crop productivity by at least 50%. This prevalence of acidic soil is two to three times higher than that of other East African countries and the levels of salt affected soils are the highest in all of Africa.

Ethiopia also experiences some of the most severe losses of soil due to water erosion of any country in the world. Rates have averaged as much as 30 to 42 tons of soil lost per hectare per year, top soil erosion accounting for an estimated 30,000 hectares of agricultural land lost every year. Though still a problem, massive land rehabilitation efforts over the last 10 years have rehabilitated and re-greened nearly 20 million hectares of previously degraded land, helping to reduce levels of erosion.


Responding to the challenges facing Ethiopian soils

To address these challenges, a soil fertility research and management road map was developed in 2010 by the then Ministry of Agriculture. At the same time, alongside this,the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS) project was launched in 2012 to provide nation-wide high-resolution soil fertility maps that have helped to revise fertilizer recommendations as well as design site-specific soil management interventions. Now in its final year, EthioSIS will soon have sampled soils from all woredas of the country and has produced soil fertility atlases for all  regions, three of which have already been published. This initiative has also contributed to the establishment of two new directorates within the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources to lead and oversee soil management implementation.  The four regional bureaus of agriculture have also established soil fertility directorates to support the regional soil fertility priorities.

Findings from the EthioSIS project are being used to shape interventions in the GTP II Agricultural Transformation Agenda in particular efforts to improve fertilizer use  efficiency, supporting both the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) to make appropriately tailored fertilizers available to farmers and farmers themselves to seek out and apply these inputs. Fertilizer initiatives resulting from this since 2013 have resulted in an annual increase in fertilizer consumption of approximately 20%. Following this, in November 2016, Ethiopia’s state-run Chemical Industries Corporation (CIC) signed a $3.7 billion deal with Morocco’s OCP (Cherifien des Phosphates), the world’s largest phosphate exporter, to build a fertilizer production complex near  Dire Dawa due to begin production in 2022. In the meantime, by 2020, the GoE and her partners expect to reach at least 4 million smallholder farmers with specific fertilizers or soil amendment recommendations through additional ongoing initiatives.

At the same time, there is recognition that fertilizers need to be part of an integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) system that helps to identify the right combination of soil ameliorants, organic fertilizer sources, chemical fertilizer inputs, and improved agronomic practices. An ISFM technology package is being developed for Ethiopia’s major cropping systems and agro-ecologies, and a crop response database is being established for targeted test crops, including tef (the country’s endemic, staple grain), soybean, wheat, and chickpea. Alongside the database, new packages for Ethiopia’s agricultural extension service are being developed that focus on best practices for conservation agriculture and vermicomposting.  By 2020, the goal is to reach at least 1.3 million smallholder farmers with comprehensive recommendations from a validated ISFM package.

Combined, these initiatives are part of a number of efforts being designed to ensure that gains made in Ethiopia’s agriculture sector, a priority for GTP II, take into account the long-term sustainability of the country’s natural resources. They align with the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) emphasis today, World Soil Day, that farmers and policymakers need to acknowledge and celebrate the “importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system and as a vital contributor to human wellbeing”.

Though stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the value of healthy soils for providing food, feed, moisture and their roles as carbon sinks, this is still not enough. Soil scientists believe the awareness creation effort should start by including relevant chapters in primary education and beyond.  Recognizing the immense role the soil plays, the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in its Vienna Soil Declaration of 7 December 2015, has proclaimed 2015 to 2024 the International Decade of Soils. The ATA and her partners working to improve soil health and fertility in Ethiopia support this campaign and encourage everyone to better understand and care for our soils.