The world’s population is above 8 billion and rising quickly. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects it will increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, and more people lead to higher demand for food industries like agriculture. Scientists have found ways to increase yields, but problems arise when the soil doesn’t cooperate.
Soil erosion is common on continents like Africa. Numerous factors contribute to the conditions, but not all hope is lost. Researchers have found mineral mining could be the key to improving soil quality. How does it work? What does it mean for the future of African agriculture?
What Happened to Africa’s Soil?
The state of African agriculture needs improvement. The sub-Saharan regions have faced soil degradation due to erosion, deforestation, over-farming, inefficient use of resources and more. These factors have led to compromised soil and decreased yields.
For example, farmers worldwide grow cereal crops like rice, wheat and rye. Africa falls behind other continents and individual countries because of poor soil. In 2020, African nations averaged 1.65 tons per hectare (t/ha). Meanwhile, the global average is 4.07 t/ha, and countries like the U.K., China and Belgium grow more than 6 t/ha.
The soil is poor in many African regions — one indication agriculturalists can see is the absence of organic carbon. When it leaves the ground, the soil loses fertility and contributes to climate change. Carbon provides plants with nutrients and fights off degradation, and crops with carbon are better at holding water and are less prone to erosion.
How Does Mineral Mining for Farming Work?
Mineral mining is a process where extractors remove minerals from the ground. For thousands of years, people have mined iron, gold, coal and other precious metals from the Earth. Agriculturalists would need silicate rocks primarily in the Earth’s crust. Silicate minerals compose most of the top layer and are high in magnesium and calcium.
Silicate rocks help the soil by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2). Retaining CO2 means less enters the atmosphere, which helps fight climate change. Since 1850, Africa’s temperatures have risen more than the worldwide average, leading to increased flooding, coastal erosion and soil degradation.
What Are the Challenges of Mineral Mining?
Mineral mining presents an opportunity for African agriculture to save itself as the effects of climate change continue to harm the planet. However, these three challenges present questions for the widespread implementation of mineral mining.
Land ownership in Africa is tricky to navigate. Changing farming tactics in many countries would require going through the government, considering it owns much of the land.
Mineral ownership is necessary to determine who can use the materials extracted from the ground. The solution is more straightforward in the United States, considering citizens have full rights to minerals, oil and gas below the surface of their land. However, it’s much more difficult in many African nations.
Phosphorus is an integral part of mineral mining and soil preservation. Plants depend heavily on the element for their root systems and growth. Restoring phosphorus to the soil would significantly help agriculture, but price spikes have become an issue.
Phosphorus is highly reactive, so it’s difficult for the average person to get their hands on it. Many fertilizers use it, but the price can be out of reach for many. For example, in 2008, the cost of phosphate increased by 800% because it became a commodity. Numerous farmers across Africa require it for their crops.
The price of phosphate has deep geopolitical ties. Much of the element is in West African nations. Countries like Morocco own large amounts of phosphate reserves. In fact, Morocco holds about 50 billion metric tons, whereas the world’s supply sits at around 71 billion metric tons. Phosphate’s cost could easily change based on conflict, treaties and other issues.
Another question surrounding mineral mining is energy consumption. The world’s power usage is already climbing with concerns about how much the electric grids can take and the emissions from energy-intensive processes. For example, crushing rocks and transporting them requires a lot of power. Renewable sources are necessary to ensure mineral mining is sustainable and not counterproductive.
Saving African Agriculture With Mineral Mining
Many African countries, especially in sub-Saharan areas, face struggles in agriculture. Soil isn’t optimal for farming due to climate change, but mineral mining could offer a solution. Restoring phosphorus and increasing carbon capture would go a long way in reversing carbon emissions and producing better yields.