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The input reduction principle of agroecology is wrong when it comes to mineral fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa
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Can farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) boost crop yields and improve food availability without using more mineral fertilizer? This question has been at the center of lively debates among the civil society, policy-makers, and in academic editorials. Proponents of the “yes” answer have put forward the “input reduction” principle of agroecology, i.e. by relying on agrobiodiversity, recycling and better efficiency, agroecological practices such as the use of legumes and manure can increase crop productivity without the need for more mineral fertilizer. We reviewed decades of scientific literature on nutrient balances in SSA, biological nitrogen fixation of tropical legumes, manure production and use in smallholder farming systems, and the environmental impact of mineral fertilizer. Our analyses show that more mineral fertilizer is needed in SSA for five reasons: (i) the starting point in SSA is that agricultural production is “agroecological” by default, that is, very low mineral fertilizer use, widespread mixed crop-livestock systems and large crop diversity including legumes, but leading to poor soil fertility as a result of widespread soil nutrient mining, (ii) the nitrogen needs of crops cannot be adequately met solely through biological nitrogen fixation by legumes and recycling of animal manure, (iii) other nutrients like phosphorus and potassium need to be replaced continuously, (iv) mineral fertilizers, if used appropriately, cause little harm to the environment, and (v) reducing the use of mineral fertilizers would hamper productivity gains and contribute indirectly to agricultural expansion and to deforestation. Yet, the agroecological principles directly related to soil fertility—recycling, efficiency, diversity—remain key in improving soil health and nutrient-use efficiency, and are critical to sustaining crop productivity in the long run. We argue for a nuanced position that acknowledges the critical need for more mineral fertilizers in SSA, in combination with the use of agroecological practices and adequate policy support.
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Permanent link to this itemhttps://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12478/8293
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