Fertile Grounds Initiative: a conserted action to improve soil fertility, increase yields and adapt to climate change

The FGI is concerted action to bring together various sources of organic and mineral nutrients via a matchmaking process to improve food security and reduce wastes.

Every year more than 10 million ha worldwide are prone to soil degradation, resulting in a loss of fertile topsoil that is worth about 40 billion US$. This is a serious threat to social stability in general and to food security, in particular for large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), South-America and South-East Asia. To halt and reverse this trend, dozens of projects and initiatives, ranging from national fertiliser subsidy programmes to local fertiliser demonstration trials have been implemented over the past decades, but none lived up to the needs to restore or retain soil fertility in a satisfying way. Instead, the accumulation of nutrients in developed countries and the depletion of nutrients in developing countries is increasing and thereby soil fertility loss, and its consequences for food security, has become a global concern. Consequently, new approaches to maintain and improve the productive capacity of land are required.

Fertile Grounds Initiative

The Fertile Grounds Initiative is based on the findings that:

  • A large number of interventions to improve soil fertility was developed that differ in time perspectives (long term vs short term effects) and input levels (low input vs high input);
  • There are no silver bullet solutions to maintain and improve the soils productive capacity. Local conditions (farmer skills, resources availability, socio-economic conditions, and climate) determine the best sets of interventions;
  • The way forward should be on the basis of Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM), that includes the application of both mineral fertiliser and organic manures to improve the soils’ productive capacity;
  • Nutrient management is closely linked to energy use and climate change, both locally and globally. Locally, there is competition for organic matter between fuel for cooking, animal feed and soil amendment. Globally, soil organic matter represents one of the largest carbon stocks that can be depleted or restored, while N fertilisers claim energy for their production and their use causes greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions;
  • The limited productive capacity of nutrient depleted soils in one part of the world and the environmental degradation caused by excessive nutrient use in other parts of the world, are two sides of the same coin. Both are struggling to reverse the consequences of these processes. Linking nutrient flows across scales is an opportunity for urban and intensive agriculture regions to reduce environmental problems, turn waste and its associated costs for society into valuable resources and a source of economic activity;
  • Nutrients have an intrinsic value and consequently, can be (and in a few circumstances: are already) traded. Business cases are designed that stimulate improved nutrient use efficiency and improved distribution of nutrients (e.g. use of improved varieties).

Based on these conclusions, the Fertile Grounds Initiative (FGI) was designed to close the nutrient cycle and restore nutrient balances at various spatial levels to maintain or improve the productive quality (soil health) of the land in the long run. It is  a coordinated strategy of collaboration between actors in nutrient management (e.g. farmer, fertilizer industry) and other stakeholders (e.g. legislation) to begin with within a country. In the FGI nutrients are traded in a concerted way between suppliers and users, ensuring the best possible combination to ensure sustainability. The initiative requires brokerage, optimizing the match between supply and demand, and minimizing transport of organic and inorganic fertilizers.

The Fertile Grounds Initiative comprises the following eight main activities:

  1. Inventory: Farmers and nutrient suppliers express their requirements and productive capacity
  2. Processing & product formulation: Conversion of resources (e.g. organic nutrients) into valuable fertiliser products, including mineral enrichment.
  3. Brokering: Nutrients are valued and a (financial) agreement is arranged between supply and demand.
  4. Recommendations: Site-specific fertiliser recommendations are developed based on soil and crop response data.
  5. Trade & Logistics: Business case design and the required nutrients are transported to the fields.
  6. Capacity building: Farmers and extension workers are trained on best (nutrient) practices.
  7. Institution building: Cooperatives, micro-credits, insurances are involved.
  8. Enabling environment: Policy alignment – evaluation and adaptation of policies regarding nutrient availability and specific demands from market parties.

The Fertile Grounds Initiative is expected to make a significant practical contribution to sustainable development in areas with limited soil fertility and nutrient availability, while at the same time resolving problems arising from nutrient excess in certain parts of the world and from (urban) waste streams, turning these into economic assets.

After three successful Theory of Change workshops in Ethiopia and Uganda (Dec. 2014) and Burundi (Jan. 2015) pilot studies will start in 2015 and the number of on the ground activities will expand with new partners joining.