15-16 JUNE 2016 / Tour & Taxis / Brussels

Soil data and information for development

Soil data and information for development

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 -
09:15 to 10:30

Key points

  • Policymakers need to be made aware of the importance of soil quality given that increased demand for food, land degradation and water scarcity are major challenges facing Africa in the future.
  • The European Commission’s first-ever Soil Atlas for Africa published earlier this year could be used as a basis for developing soil policies, but it is important to note that it draws on data from surveys from the 1970s, 1980s and in some cases the 1930s and 1940s.
  • The Commission is looking for Africa to develop its own data collection programme and is planning to set up an assessment next year to identify the main trends and threats to soil by country.



Land degradation and water scarcity are major challenges facing Africa; current pressure on natural resources is set to intensify with an expected 2.5 billion more people living in Africa by the end of the century. As a result, more emphasis on the condition of soils is needed to feed Africans in the future.

‘Over exploitation [of soils] will lead to a disastrous result,’ said sociologist and politician Alexander Müller, who also called for ‘recognition at political level’ to look at soils in a different way.

The European Commission’s Soil Atlas of Africa, published earlier this year, is an encyclopaedia or mini textbook, describing the main soil types in different regions of the continent, how soils are formed, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they vary across regions. Information is presented in accessible, non-scientific language. The publication is available free online.

‘The Soil Atlas of Africa is a good basis for decision-making. What is needed is awareness and political will,’ he said. ‘You need healthy soils and sustainable management of soils or you can’t deal with hunger, climate change and other big global challenges.’

Arwyn Jones, Communications Officer for Soil Data and Information Systems, at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and lead author of the Soil Atlas for Africa, commented, ‘We have poor data to support decision-making processes in Africa. Soils are incredibly diverse but our understanding of the geographical distribution of soils is poor.’

Until now there has been a tendency for soil data to be hidden away and not made available to the public. The JRC is trying to improve policy-relevant soil data by increasing the awareness. ‘Soil is not on people’s radar,’ he added.

There is a clear link between nutrient-poor soils and undernourishment, which needs to be addressed. Information could be taken from the Soil Atlas for Africa and used for policy development, for example, data could show the benefits of applying indigenous conservation agriculture systems. An important caveat to bear in mind is that the Soil Atlas of Africa draws on data from surveys from the 1970s, 1980s, and in some cases the 1930s and 1940s. The publication has been presented at events such as a soils conference in Kenya and at the EU-Africa Summit.

The Soil Atlas for Africa will come out in French next year, and a version for Latin America will also be produced. A Soil Atlas will not be produced every year but the Commission has set Africa the challenge to produce its own atlas in 20 years time. It is trying to set up a soil-resources assessment next year to identify the main trends and threats to soil by country. African countries will be sent a standard template to complete. ‘Even if it highlights that there is no data, that is also a positive thing,’ said Jones.

A joint programme of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also looking into how to protect Africa’s soil resources. Two areas of work include:

  • Coordinated research projects with participants from different regions in the world. The objective is to identify a specify problem in agriculture, engage several countries and research institutes to study the problem and come up with a solution. The projects are mostly research contracts given to scientists in developing countries. The budget comes to around EUR 400,000 to EUR 500,000 over five years.
  • Technical cooperation projects. The objective is to take a solution and bring it to the field/farmer and provide laboratories and training. The project can take the form of capacity building, training, fellowships and providing laboratory equipment. The budget comes to around EUR 4 million to EUR 5 million. There are 26 ongoing projects in Africa.


To date, there are no concrete examples of using the Soil Atlas for Africa for policy development. However, the Kenyan agricultural research institute is comparing the data in the atlas to national data holdings. The Kenyan agriculture minister was cited as calling it ‘the new bible for Africa’.