Low Tech Methods:African Soil


A test program using trees, shrubs and rocks to improve the fertility of soil in sub-Saharan Africa appears to be a success, and the program should be expanded, according to a policy article in this week's edition of the journal Science.

Commercial fertilizer costs too much in Africa for most farmers to use, resulting in depleted nutrients in the soils. "Farmers that have implemented these new soil fertility replenishment methods have seen crop yields increase two to four times," said Pedro Sanchez, visiting professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at University of California at Berkeley. "They tell us they are no longer hungry. And the best part of this is that they can utilize the natural resources that are all around them." Ten years ago, Sanchez launched the programs, in which planting seedlings of leguminous trees with a young maize crops causes accumulation of nitrogen, a critical plant nutrient.

The trees do not compete with the crop, but at the end of the dry season farmers cut them down, leaving the stems, leaves and roots to decompose and release the accumulated nitrites into the soil. "Legumes are the only family of plants that can take inert nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrates, a form plants can use," said Sanchez. In East Africa, rocks containing high amounts of phosphates are crushed and worked into the soil, providing another important nutrient.

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