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African Farmers Face Critical Loss of Fertile Land

A rice farmer in Tanzania's Great Rift Valley, in the country's southwest.
Jason Beaubien, NPR
A rice farmer in Tanzania's Great Rift Valley, in the country's southwest.

African agriculture is in crisis, and Africa's farmland is losing its fertility at an alarming rate, a new report says.

Farmers in Malanzanga, Tanzania, for example, grow the same crops in the same fields year after year. They don't fertilize, and they don't terrace their fields. When the soil wears out, they clear a new piece of land.

This creates a "kind of spiral," says Hussein Sosovelle, a researcher at the Institute for Resource Assessment at the University of Dar es Salaam.

"Because soil erosion has taken place, the topsoil has gone; farmers cannot produce more. They move to other areas, open up other areas, cultivate. Once soil erosion comes, again they move to other areas," Sosovelle says.

The report from the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development in Muscle Shoals, Ala., concludes that soil degradation is worse in Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa already isn't producing enough food to feed its people, and the population is increasing while food production has stagnated or declined. The report notes that while Asian farmers have increased agricultural yields per acre almost threefold since 1961, yields per acre in Africa, on average, are unchanged.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.