Questions of Imbalance: Agronomic Science and Sustainability Assessment in Dryland West Africa

  • Matthew D. Turner


Nutrient budgeting has become a common tool to assess the sustainability of African agriculture, calculated by subtracting estimates of flows of nutrients out from the flows coming in. More negative budgets for a field, village territory, county, country, or region are seen as evidence for unsustainable “nutrient mining” leading to land degradation. This chapter places this approach within the traditions of agronomic science of dryland Africa. A basic limitation of this tradition is its recurrent attempts to avoid engaging seriously with the dynamics and heterogeneities of farmers’ practices. This chapter concludes by presenting a critical physical geographical alternative that seeks to understand how social and biophysical landscapes are co-produced involving high rates of soil sampling and analysis; interviews of farmers about the management history of sampled fields; and assessment of field managers’ access to productive resources (land, labor, livestock).


  1. Aina, P.O. 1979. Soil changes resulting from long-term management practices in Western Nigeria. Soil Science Society of America Journal 43: 173–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allan, W. 1965. The African husbandman. New York: Barnes & Noble.Google Scholar
  3. Bationo, A., B.C. Christianson, and M.C. Klaij. 1993. The effect of crop residue and fertilization use on pearl millet yields in niger. Fertilizer Research 34: 251–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bationo, A., F. Lompo, and S. Koala. 1998. Research on nutrient flows and balances in west Africa: State-of-the-art. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 71: 19–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bertrand, R., J. Nabos, and R. Vicaire. 1972. Exportations minérales par le mil et l’arachide: Conséquences sur la définition d’une fumure d’entretien d’un soil ferrugineux tropical développé sur matériaux éolien à Tarna (Niger). Agonomie Tropicale 27: 1287–1302.Google Scholar
  6. Brams, E.A. 1971. Continuous cultivation of West African soils: Organic matter dimunation and effects of applied lime and phosphorus. Plant and Soil 35: 401–474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chappell, A., A. Warren, N. Taylor, and M. Charlton. 1998. Soil flux (loss and gain) in southwestern Niger and its agricultural impact. Land Degradation & Development 9: 295–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Charreau, C., and R. Fauk. 1970. Mise au point sur l’utilisation agricole des sols de la region de Sefa (Casamance). Agronomie Tropicale 25: 151–191.Google Scholar
  9. Chevalier, A. 1928. Sur la dégradation des sols tropicaux causée par les feux de brousse et sur les formation végétales régressives qui en sont la conséquence. Comptes rendus de l’Academie des Sciences 188: 84–86.Google Scholar
  10. Cobo, J.G., G. Dercon, and G. Cadisch. 2010. Nutrient balances in African land use systems across different spatial scales: A review of approaches, challenges and progress. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 136: 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Collier, F.S., and J. Dundas. 1937. The arid regions of northern Nigeria and the French Niger colony. The Empire Forestry Journal 16: 184–194.Google Scholar
  12. Duvall, C. 2011. Ferricrete, forests and temporal scale in the production of colonial science in Africa. In Knowing nature: Conversations at the intersection of political ecology and science studies, ed. M.J. Goldman, P. Nadasdy, and M.D. Turner, 113–127. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Fairhead, J., and I. Scoones. 2005. Local knowledge and the social shaping of soil investments: Critical perspectives on the assessment of soil degradation in Africa. Land Use Policy 22: 23–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fleming, J. 2014. Political ecology and the geography of science: Lesosady, lysenkoism, and soviet science in kyrgyzstan’s walnut–fruit forest. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104: 1183–1198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Food and Agriculture Organization. 2004. Scaling soil nutrient balances: Enabling mesolevel applications for African realities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
  16. Goldman, M.J., P. Nadasdy, and M.D. Turner, eds. 2011. Knowing nature: Conversations at the intersection of political ecology and science studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  17. Gray, L.C. 2005a. What kind of intensification? Agricultural practice, soil fertility, and socioeconomic differentiation in rural Burkina Faso. The Geographical Journal 171: 70–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. ———. 2005b. What kind of intensification? Agricultural practice, soil fertility and socioeconomic differentiation in rural Burkina Faso. The Geographical Journal 171: 70–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grote, U., E. Craswell, and P. Viek. 2005. Nutrient flows in international trade: Ecology and policy issues. Environmental Science and Policy 8: 439–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hafner, H., J. Bley, A. Batiano, P. Martin, and H. Marschner. 1993. Long-term nitrogen balance for pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum L.) in an acid sandy soil of Niger. Zeitschrift für Pflanzenernährung und Bodenkunde 156: 169–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Harris, F.M.A. 1998. Farm-level assessment of the nutrient balance in northern Nigeria. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 71: 201–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Harroy, J.-P. 1949. Afrique terre qui meurt: La dégradation des sols africains sous l’influence de la colonisation. Brussels: Marcel Hayez.Google Scholar
  23. Hoogmoed, W.B., and L. Stroosnijder. 1984. Crust formation on sandy soils in the sahel. 1. Rainfall and infiltration. Soil and Tillage Research 4: 5–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jones, M.J. 1973. The organic matter content of the savanna soils of West Africa. Journal of Soil Science 24: 42–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kohler, R.E. 2002. Landscapes and labscapes: Exploring the lab-field border in biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Krogh, L. 1997. Field and village nutrient balances in millet cultivation in northern Burkina Faso: A village case study. Journal of Arid Environments 35: 147–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Krogh, L., and B. Paarup-Laursen. 1997. Indigenous soil knowledge among the Fulani of northern Burkina Faso: Linking soil science and anthropology in analysis of natural resource management. GeoJournal 43: 189–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lamers, J.P.A., and P.R. Feil. 1995. Farmers’ knowledge and management of spatial soil and crop growth variability in Niger, West Africa. Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science 43: 375–389.Google Scholar
  29. Mohamed-Saleem, M.A. 1998. Nutrient balance patterns in African livestock systems. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 71: 241–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Moran, E.F., ed. 1990. The ecosystem approach in anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  31. Mortimore, M., and F. Harris. 2005. Do small farmers’ achievements contradict the nutrient depletion scenarios for Africa? Land Use Policy 22: 43–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Niemeijer, D., and V. Mazzucato. 2002. Soil degradation in West african sahel: How serious is it? Environment 44: 20–33.Google Scholar
  33. Neimeijer, D., and V. Mazzucato. 2003. Moving beyond indigenous soil taxonomies: Local theories of soils for sustainable development. Geoderma 111: 403–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nye, P.H., and D.J. Greenland. 1960. The soil under shifting cultivation. Harpenden: Commonwealth Bureau of Soils.Google Scholar
  35. Odum, H.T. 1971. Environment. New York: Power and Society.Google Scholar
  36. Osbahr, H. 2001. Livelihood strategies and soil fertility at Fandou Béri, Southwestern Niger. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London, London.Google Scholar
  37. Penning de Vries, F.W.T., and M.A. Djitèye, eds. 1982. La productivité des pâturages sahéliens. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation.Google Scholar
  38. Pieri, C. 1985. Bilans mineraux des sytemes de cultures pluviales en zones arides et semi-arides. L’Agronomie Tropicale 40: 1–20.Google Scholar
  39. ———. 1992. Fertility of soils. A future for the farming in the West African Savanna. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  40. Powell, J.M., S. Fernandez-Rivera, P. Hiernaux, and M.D. Turner. 1996. Nutrient cycling in integrated rangeland/cropland systems of the Sahel. Agricultural Systems 52: 143–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Powell, J.M., S. Fernandez-Rivera, T.O. Williams, and C. Renard, eds. 1995. Livestock and sustainable nutrient cycling in mixed farming systems of sub-Saharan Africa. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: International Livestock Centre for Africa.Google Scholar
  42. Powell, J.M., F.N. Ikpe, and Z.C. Somda. 1999. Crop yield and the fate of nitrogen and phosphorus following application of plant material and feces to soil. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 54: 215–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Powell, J.M., and M.A. Mohamed-Saleem. 1987. Nitrogen and phosphorus transfers in a crop-livestock system in West Africa. Agricultural Systems 25: 261–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Prudencio, C.Y. 1993. Ring management of soils and crops in the West African semi-arid tropics: The case of mossi farming in Burkina Faso. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 47: 237–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Ramisch, J.J. 2005a. Inequality, agro-pastoral exchanges, and soil fertility gradient in Southern Mali. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 105: 353–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. ———. 2005b. Inequality, agro-pastoral exchanges, and soil fertility gradients in Southern Mali. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 105: 353–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Roy, R.N., R.V. Misra, J.P. Lesschen, and E.M. Smaling. 2003. Assessment of soil nutrient balance: Approaches and methodologies. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar
  48. Schlecht, E., and P. Hiernaux. 2004. Beyond adding up inputs and outputs; process assessment and upscaling in modeling nutrient flows. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 70: 303–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Scoones, I., and C. Toulmin. 1998. Soil nutrient budgets and balances: What use of policy? Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 71: 255–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Showers, K.B. 2006. A history of African soil: Perceptions, use and abuse. In Soils and societies: Perspectives from environmental history, ed. J.R. McNeill and V. Winiwarter, 118–176. Isle of Harris: The White Horse Press.Google Scholar
  51. Smaling, E.M.A., J.J. Stoorvogel, and P.N. Windmeijer. 1993. Calculating soil nutrient balances in Africa at different scales: II. District scale. Fertilizer Research 35: 237–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stoorvogel, J.J., and E.M.A. Smaling. 1990. Assessment of soil nutrient depletion in sub-Saharan Africa, 1983–2000. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Winand Staring Centre for Integrated Soil and Water Research.Google Scholar
  53. ———. 1993. Calculating soil nutrient balances in Africa at different scales: I. Supra-national scale. Fertilizer Research 35: 227–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tittonell, P., A. Muriuki, C.J. Klapwijk, K.D. Shepherd, R. Coe, and B. Vanlauwe. 2013. Soil heterogeneity and soil fertility gradients in smallholder farms of the East African Highlands. Soil Science Society of America Journal 77: 525–538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tittonell, P., A. Muriuki, K.D. Shepherd, D. Mugendi, K.C. Kaizzi, J. Okeyo, L. Verchot, R. Coe, and B. Vanlauwe. 2010. The diversity of rural livelihoods and their influence on soil fertility in agricultural systems of East Africa—A typology of smallholder farms. Agricultural Systems 103: 83–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Turner, M.D. 1995. The sustainability of rangeland to cropland nutrient transfer in semi-arid West Africa: Ecological and social dimensions neglected in the debate. In Livestock and sustainable nutrient cycling in mixed farming systems of sub-Saharan Africa. Proceedings of an international conference, 22–26 November 1993, ed. J.M. Powell, S. Fernandez-Rivera, T.O. Williams, and C. Renard, 435–452. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: International Livestock Centre for Africa.Google Scholar
  57. ———. 1998. Long-term effects of daily grazing orbits on nutrient availability in sahelian West Africa: 1. Gradients in the chemical composition of rangeland soils and vegetation. Journal of Biogeography 25: 669–682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. ———. 2016. Rethinking land endowment and inequality in rural africa: The importance of soil fertility. World Development. 87: 258–273.Google Scholar
  59. Turner, M.D., and P. Hiernaux. 2015. The effects of management history and landscape position on inter-field variation in soil fertility and millet yields in Southwestern Niger. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 211: 73–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Valentin, C. 1985. Effects of grazing and trampling on soil deterioration around recently drilled water holes in the Sahelian Zone. In Soil Erosion and Water Erosion, eds. S.A. El-Swaify, W.C. Moldenhauer, and A. Lo, 51–65. Ankeny, IA: Soil Conservation Society of America.Google Scholar
  61. van der Pol, F. 1992. Soil mining. An unseen contributor to farm income in Southern Mali. Amsterdam: The Netherlands, Royal Tropical Institute.Google Scholar
  62. van Keulen, H., and H. Breman. 1990. Agricultural development in the West African Sahelian Region: A cure against land hunger? Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 32: 177–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Warren, A., H. Osbahr, S. Batterbury, and A. Chappell. 2003. Indigenous views of soil erosion at Fandou Beri, southwestern Niger. Geoderma 111: 439–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew D. Turner
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations