Searching for a money tree

Posting, here, a link to an interesting story about food-growing in sub-Saharan Africa.

The article explains how crop yields there have been falling dangerously low, and how the traditional approach of ‘adding more fertilisers’ is no longer working.

A new approach, called ‘agroforestry’, involves working more closely with nature — and is having great results. In this particular example it involves the planting of ‘fertiliser trees’: trees that protect the soil from the sun, and increase both its moisture and its nutrient content.

This is interesting for two reasons.

First, because the shift to a more sustainable system approach to farming is creating new opportunities for businesses in these areas. In this case the demand for seeds of these ‘fertiliser trees’ is outstripping supply.

And second, because our whole western economy is facing problems similar to the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa: our traditional approach to add more fertiliser (‘increasing the existing money supply’) simply is not working. Our ‘land’ is drying up.

We need the economic equivalent of a ‘fertiliser tree’. What would one look like?

Finding it would be like finding the natural equivalent of a money tree…

Across the drylands of the Sahel, close to the edge of the Sahara, crop yields are falling as increasing demand from growing populations mean the soil is not given the dozen or more years it has traditionally been allowed to lie fallow before being planted again.

Fallow periods have dropped to two years or less, sapping the land of the organic material that makes it fertile, and creating a concrete-like surface that cannot absorb the rain when it does come.

Artificial fertilisers allowed this new, more intensive, system to work for a while. But now the rising price of oil is making those fertilisers unaffordable. And the outlook is that millions of rural poor will migrate to the cities, or even into Europe, pushing down the price of unskilled labour (wherever they turn up), just as the price of food continues to rise…

But in some parts of Mali, close to the Sahara desert, farmers reaped a bumper crop last year. And villagers now have enough food to take them through the dry season.

The reason? They have been following the advice of the World Agroforestry Centre and planting trees — trees that fertilise the soil (both by dropping leaves, and by bringing nutrients and water up from deep below the surface), protect it from the sun (so that raint that falls is more easily absorbed back into the ground), and so reversing years of soil degradation.

Yields from farming this way can be two to three times higher, and the ‘fertiliser tree’ approach is being applied in Malawi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.

What would it take for business to do the same?

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