Soil knowledge can improve environment and save lives

Knowledge about soil can reduce damage to the environment and save lives. This is what environmental economist Anders Ekbom shows in his doctoral thesis on soil capital, land use and agricultural production in Kenya. Such knowledge is important for a large number of developing countries in Africa, Asia and Central America.

Anders Ekbom, PhD Dissertation Dec. 14, 2007

On December 14 at 10 a.m. Anders Ekbom defended his PhD thesis "Economic Analysis of Soil Capital, Land Use and Agricultural Production in Kenya". Discussant was Professor Edward Barbier, University of Wyoming, USA.

Anders Ekbom, who in addition to his research advises the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) on environmental economics, has visited 250 farmers in the Kenyan Highlands for four successive years. He has interviewed them about different economic factors that affect agricultural productivity and taken soil samples from their farms.

The studies show, somewhat surprisingly, that despite the farms being located within a small area of just a few square kilometers, there are extremely large variations in the soil properties and qualities. This is an important result as the government agricultural advice that is provided in the area is based on the opposite, that the soil is quite homogenous.

"Being aware of the specific properties of the soil is fundamental in being able to maintain it so that it continues to produce a harvest year after year. It is precisely those nutrients that are missing that must be added, along with the right methods of cultivation and other inputs to take care of the soil," says Anders Ekbom.

In his dissertation he shows how more scientifically based agricultural advice, development of markets for manure, better seed, roads and selling opportunities, as well as the development of ownership rights and credit- and insurance systems can increase agricultural production in a cost-effective manner.

Ekbom´s soil capital model includes effects on society

Anders Ekbom has also developed a soil capital model which differs from traditional economic calculation models for soil as capital in that it is not based solely on individual farms, but also includes effects on society. In this way Ekbom demonstrates that the State, for socio-economic reasons, should pay farmers to conserve and cultivate the soil in a way that reduces soil erosion and surface run-off. Agricultural subsidies are an economic control instrument that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have long wanted to reduce.

"However, I show that if governments invest in agriculture by paying farmers to carry out ecological services, for example selecting certain crops, planting trees and terracing the ground, it can reduce soil erosion and the extremely negative effects that are affecting so many people and environments downstream of agriculture, in a way that is cost-effective for society," says Anders Ekbom, who also observes,

"There has long been a lack of interest and knowledge among the majority of economists in the importance of natural resources for economic development. Economic analyses of agriculture are often completely lacking in information about the importance of the soil. Soil is often considered as a given or a constant factor, or defined superficially, when in actual fact it is an extremely complex resource, which is of vital significance for farmers' food production."

Anders Ekbom belongs to the, as of yet, limited group of economists who are integrating science and economics. While working on the dissertation he  collaborated with a number of economists and scientists from several different disciplines.


News | 23 January 2008