Tegbaru Belete Program Leader of the Ethiopia Soil Information System
Soil acidity has been a big concern in Ethiopia for a long time. Although the problem has been known for over a decade, the level of action taken by the government was minimal. To avert this problem and develop policy to help farmers improve their yield, the Ethiopian Soil Information System (Ethio SIS) was launched by the Agricultural Transformation Agency in 2012, to bolster the growth and transformation of Ethiopia’s agriculture sector. Tegbaru Belete, program leader of the project, sat down with EBR’s Ashenafi Endale to talk about some of the ins and outs of the project and how the soil acidity problem can be solved.
EBR: A study conducted more than a decade ago concluded that 40pct of Ethiopia’s arable land is acidic, which highly affects agricultural production and productivity. What are the major findings of the soil atlas, which is currently under preparation by ATA, about the seriousness of acidic soil?
Tegbaru: Soil acidity is critical. The problem is prevalent in the states of Amhara, Oromia and SNNP. This is a spatial prediction that only excludes urban and water areas. This research was done a long time ago but is still referred to because no other studies have been undertaken since then. Worryingly, the acidity problem has escalated in recent years. However, accurate acidity, soda and alkaline figures will be released only after the national soil map is completed.
What are the features of acidic soils and their causes?
You can spot acidic soil simply, because it turns red like rust. Of course, it not as red as feral soil found in Brazil. Termites coming up to the surface of the land in search of organic matter it is another sign of acidic soil.
Excessive usage of manmade fertilizers and acid rain are the main factors in developed countries. However, the effects of such factors are minimal in Ethiopia since both are insignificant. Ethiopia’s acidity problem arises from nature. The first is the genesis of Ethiopia’s soil. If the parent material of the rocks is made from acidic materials, there is a big chance the soil will be acidic.
The second factor is the level of rainfall. Acidity is high where rainfall is high. Due to intense rainfall, some nutrients like magnesium, calcium and others are simply washed off the surface soil. These elements are abundantly found in underground water, because they drain down from the upper soil. Other elements left on the surface soil, like iron, aluminum and hydrogen, make choroids. As these become abundant on the surface soil, they make the soil acidic.
But don’t you think the intensive application of fertilizers, mainly urea and DAP, ultimately caused acidification of soils?
Their contribution to acidification is low because the fertilizer usage in Ethiopia is insignificant. Of course, urea and DAP are used to increase the nutrient levels that were absent from the soil, particularly nitrogen. We have been using these fertilizers without any soil information data for close to 50 years, which created a nutrient imbalance in the soil.
Would the soil map help to resolve the problem?
We identified fertilizer deficits and recommendation down to the kebele level after finding the soil types. This allows farmers to use the right kind of fertilizer. But application of fertilizers does not only depend on soil type but also on the nature of crops. It is not ATA’s mandate to research plant specific nutrient recipes. Therefore, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has been doing this.
What are the negative impacts of acidic soils?
A lot of production is being lost due to acidity. Productivity gains could be increased by 500Pct if the soil acidity problem was solved. Acidic soil fails to germinate seeds, especially when it comes to major crops. However, a few crops like coffee and tea grow better in acidic soils.
Another loss is the fertilizer cost. Fertilizer added to acidic soil is considered a loss, since the plant cannot utilize it.
What actions should be taken to ensure sustainable soil protection?
The problem in Ethiopia is that we are dreaming of increasing productivity in a short time, while fixing only minor problems. The focus should be increasing agricultural production and productivity in a sustainable manner. We should think about the kind of soil the next generation inherits.
This needs a strategy. Our farming system highly exposes soils to the loss of nutrients. Our fertilizer culture is very limited. We also don’t use natural compost and residue. So a strategy is needed to ensure continuous soil protection.
The government is trying to neutralize acidic soils using lime. But scholars argue that lime is not a solution for all types of soils affected by acidity.
It might not neutralize the soil acidity below a certain depth. But there are two facts here. Some nutrients like phosphorous, which are available in the soil but cannot be taken up by plants because they are no longer soluble, a condition caused by acidity, can become available to the roots because soil is treated with lime.
In Ethiopia only two types of fertilizers have been used for 50 years. DAP and urea cannot replace the potassium consumed by plants. If we do not replace potassium taken up by a plant, the soil has no other option to replace it. Potassium has been taken for thousands of years from the soil, without adding back a single drop. This is one of the problems currently affecting soil fertility. In terms of necessity, sulfur is needed in lower amounts than other primary nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
This is why fertilizer blending is important: to replace all the missing elements in soil. Physically mixing different fertilizers together is known as blending. Blending is simple and does not need complex technology or money. It is just mixing different nutrients, according to the ratio of elements needed by the soil.
But the blending factories established three years ago are not operating as expected.
Five blending factories were installed, following the Ethiopian Soil Information System (Ethio SIS) recommendations. The problem with blending is higher density components sink to the bottom of the packs during transport. This causes excess or deficit of some nutrients. So the blending factories must be near farmers. Two blending factories in the state of Oromia and one each in the states of Amhara, SNNP and Tigray were established four years ago, and smoothly started production. Inputs were usually imported together with other fertilizers.
The supply of blended fertilizers is under cooperatives. But the demand comes from regional agricultural bureaus, which has been creating misalignment.
Above all, there were also quality problems in the purchased inputs for the blending factories. All in all, the blending factories missed the targets they were set up for. Currently they have stopped operations. The Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MoANR) is working with OCP, a Morocco-based fertilizer company, for the latter to take over the factories and operate them for a limited time under a lease contract.
Ethiopia has never produced fertilizers. One of the biggest benefits of Ethio SIS is that it showed us our old fertilizer recipe lacks many necessary nutrients. This opened the opportunity for foreign fertilizer factories to open factories here. OCP is currently opening a fertilizer factory in Dire Dawa, targeting the east African market. Fertilizer imports take up the biggest share of the agricultural budget.
Is there another method to neutralize acidic soil?
That is sophisticated technology, which is economically unthinkable for Ethiopia. The simplest and cheapest method available is adding lime.
What are the biggest achievements of the project?
We identified 22 types of soil including the acid, salt, phosphorous and other contents in these soil types, down to the kebele level. This is the starting point for any soil research in the future. The second is modernizing the fertilizer usage based on the Ethio SIS recommendations.
We provided recommendations for each soil type after analyzing what organic matter it has and lacks. For instance, the government replaced DAP with NPS, based on our recommendations. The reason is soils in Ethiopia are deficit in phosphorous, nitrogen and sulfur. So from now on, any fertilizer Ethiopia buys must contain these three elements. Producing such compiled information is the biggest achievement. We will finalize and disclose the national soil atlas to stakeholders within six months’ time.
The other achievement is creating local capacity. During the first years of the project, much of the work was done by foreigners, but we took over shortly.
Will the program be closed?
It will not be closed. Usually, flagship projects are closed. We did not only produce information, but also built Ethiopia’s first soil data base. Any future generation will be able to add on this, without having to start from scratch. However, a structure is needed to sustain this.
The Ethiopian Soil Resource Mapping Directorate and Soil Fertility Directorate has been established under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fishery and will take over the ATA’s role to disseminate soil related information.
7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67