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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

African agriculture is in crisis. A new report says Africa's farmland is becoming less fertile at an alarming rate. The report finds that farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa currently don't produce enough food to feed their own people. And meager increases in agricultural production are being outstripped by gains in population.

NPR's Jason Beaubien recently traveled to Tanzania to look into the issue.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

It's the rainy season now in Tanzania. In the southwest of the country, the highlands of the great Riff Valley have turned a lush green. Sturdy corn plants in some fields stand 10 feet high. In other adjacent plots, however, pale yellow maize stalks droop in the sandy soil.

Natrato Oromo (ph) is walking through cornfields on the edge of the village of Malanzanga. He says in the past, no one would try to farm in these areas.

Mr. NATRATO OROMO (African Farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: People are cultivating here, Oromo says, because all the fertile areas have been filled up. He says a farmer might get four or five bags of corn from an acre of this sandy soil. Closer to the village, the loamy earth produces nine to 10 bags per acre.

Mr. OROMO: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Oromo points to the eroded banks of the stream and says that's where the village used to have its winter gardens. But, the gardens were planted right next to the stream, and this year they washed away. Now, he says with a fatalistic shrug, we're eating our losses.

What's happening in Malanzanga, Tanzania, is happening all across Africa according to a new report on the state of African soils. The farmers in Malanzanga 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.

Hussein Sosovelle, a researcher at the Institute for Resource Assessment at the University of Dar es Salaam, says there are farms in Central Tanzania that have turned into barren wastelands.

Mr. HUSSEIN SOSOVELLE (University of Dar es Salaam): It's kind of a spiral. Because soil erosion has taken place, the topsoil has gone. Farmers cannot produce more. They move to other areas. They open up areas, cultivate. And once soil erosion comes, again, they move to other areas. So you see that repeating itself in many places. And that's why we are facing it. We are facing that as a major problem.

BEAUBIEN: According to a report from the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 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. Population is increasing, yet 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.

Mary Rothcom (ph), who coordinates research on soil and water management for the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, says the main problem is that farmers don't adhere to modern farming methods.

Ms. MARY ROTHCOM (Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture): They are not using fertilizers. And if they are using fertilizers, they don't use the recommended rates.

BEAUBIEN: Farmers, at times, don't use fertilizer because it's not available. Others can't afford it. And erosion, Rothcom says, is exacerbated by the clearing of trees for firewood and charcoal.

Ms. ROTHCOM: And also, in cases like the western part of Tanzania, they grow tobacco, so trees are cut for curing tobacco. So we find that there are a lot of trees are being cut.

BEAUBIEN: Tanzania is in a better position agriculturally than many countries in Africa. Unlike Niger or Chad or Botswana in arid parts of the continent, most of Tanzania is well suited to farming. But ever since independence from Britain, the east African nation has been trying to figure out how to harness its agricultural potential.

In the early 1970s, Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere, launched a socialist farming movement which saw 80 percent of the rural population resettled, at times against their will, in government planned communities. Nyerere's agrarian villages improved literacy rates, but they did little for agricultural production.

(Soundbite of village noise)

BEAUBIEN: Back in the Village of Malanzanga in the Riff Valley, 54-year-old Elliott Bombacky (ph) says an irrigation ditch would solve all his problems. He grows corn and rice. The one acre of rice is a cash crop, he says, so that he can pay to send his kids to school.

Mr. ELLIOTT BOMBACKY (African Farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: With irrigation, I could plant in the dry season and grow other crops, like peanuts and vegetables, he says.

The country now plans to try to quadruple its irrigated land over the next four years to almost two and a half million acres. Several large-scale irrigation schemes built in the 1980s, however, have caused one of the major rivers in the area to dry up completely during parts of the year. This has led to power outages across the country as two of Tanzania's hydro reservoirs dropped to record low levels.

Like most of the farmers here, Bombacky doesn't use fertilizer or rotate his crops. He says he's not worried about depleting the country's soils. The ground in Tanzania is rich, he says, and if you plant seeds, the soil must accept them. His views are in stark contrast to researchers', who warn that if something isn't done to reverse the degradation of African soils, parts of the continent risk turning into dust bowls.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Jason looks at the effects of irrigation schemes that are blamed for crippling Tanzania's hydroelectricity plants.

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