Disposable diaper farming (Willem Van Cotthem)

Read at :


“Drastic Measures

How about taking Willem Van Cotthem’s idea (“Diaper Farmer”) a step further and scattering a million or so used baby diapers over a desert? The hydrogel would absorb dew that settles overnight, and the diaper contents would provide nutrients.  The remainder of the diaper should disintegrate rapidly in the hot sun, and our dumps would be relieved of tons of waste.

Jack Bass

West Hartford, Conn.”


My sincere thanks go to Jack Bass for commenting on Bruce GRIERSON’s article, published in Popular Science, under the title “Diaper Farmer” – Willem van Cotthem’s super-soil harnesses the power of Pampers to turn dirt into lush gardens“.

2010-07 – Article published in Popular Science

I fully understand Jack Bass’ hypothesis that it might be possible to use diapers as such, but I am afraid that things are not that simple.

In order to react constructively upon Jack Bass’ hypothesis that we could make a desert area fertile by scattering used baby diapers over its surface, I want first to highlight the following elements of Grierson’s text :

  1. But water alone won’t make gardens flourish in sand.
  2. So van Cotthem invented a ‘soil conditioner’ called TerraCottem.  It’s an 8- to 12-inch layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, along with organic agents that nourish the natural bacteria in the soil.
  3. Until only recently, though, hydrogels were toxic, and skeptics doubted that they could ever be made safe for consumption.

1. The importance of water

According to our actual knowledge, plant life is totally impossible without water, every living plant cell containing a high percentage of it.  Seeds can only germinate if sufficient water is present to start up the cell divisions within the embryo in the seed.  Newly formed cells in the root(s), the stem and the leaflets need water to expand to their adult volume.  A growing seedling, before breaking out of the seed, is therefore full of water. Once the primary root leaves the seed coat to enter in contact with the soil, it needs to find some moisture in the small cavities of that soil or at the surface of the moistened soil particles.  If that minimal quantity of water is not available, the primary root will not continue its growth and die off rather quickly. So, water is absolutely necessary to get plants growing, particularly in sand.

But water alone won’t make gardens flourish in sand.

Seedlings, and later on young plants and even adult plants, need to absorb through their roots not only water, but a solution of mineral elements (nutrients) in water.  Therefore, if one wants to “make gardens flourish in sand“, a number of nutrients have to be dissolved in the soil moisture to enable their uptake by the roots and their incorporation in some synthesis processes of the biomass, the plant body.

For this reason, it is interesting to know that the different hydro-absorbent hydrogels, that we have chosen to be components of the TerraCottem soil conditioner, not only absorb water but also the solution of nutrients in water.  Inside the hydrogels, swollen into gel lumps when absorbing that solution, one will not only find a considerable amount of water, but also different major nutritive elements for the plants, e.g. Ca, Fe, N, P, K, S, …

This indicates clearly that the soil conditioner TerraCottem offers all the major elements for the plant’s growth, a lot of water and the major nutrients, to the absorbing roots.

Therefore, TerraCottem makes the gardens flourish in sand, water alone doesn’t.

2. The effect of TerraCottem on soil and plant

Grierson called TerraCottem: an 8- to 12-inch layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, along with organic agents that nourish the natural bacteria in the soil.

I want to precise that TerraCottem is NOT a layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, but a granular soil conditioner, a compound of more than 20 different substances (hydroaborbent polymers or hydrogels, mineral fertilizers, organic substances, rootgrowth activators and volcanic rock – for its exact composition see www.terracottem.com).

This compound of mineral and organic substances has to be mixed with an  8- to 12-inch layer of dirt in order to condition that “dirt” (the local soil), i.e. to give it a higher water retention capacity (with its hydrogels), a higher fertility (with its mineral NPK-fertilizers), a higher organic content (with its organic substances), a higher root activating property (with its organic root activators) and a higher air retention capacity (with its volcanic rock granules).

Mixing  a certain dosage of TerraCottem soil conditioner with a given volume of dirt or soil creates all the different improvements mentioned above, resulting not only in the nourishment of the natural bacteria and other organisms in the soil, but principally in a better plant growth, in particular a maximal biomass production with a minimal of water.  Yes, TerraCottem stimulates also the development of benign natural bacteria in the soil, and this in turn will activate the mineralisation process, setting free  a lot of beneficial elements.

3. Toxicity and usefulness of hydrogels

A general description of hydrogel properties can be found at gz.e:


To understand clearly the nature, composition and significance of hydrogel applications, one can find a lot of information on Wikipedia (search “Hydrogels”).

A clear view on the history of super-absorbent polymers is given in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superabsorbent_polymer

“Until the 1980’s, water absorbing materials were cellulosic or fiber-based products. Choices were tissue paper, cotton, sponge, and fluff pulp. The water retention capacity of these types of materials is only 20 times their weight – at most.

In the early 1960s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was conducting work on materials to improve water conservation in soils. They developed a resin based on the grafting of acrylonitrile polymer onto the backbone of starch molecules (i.e. starch-grafting). The hydrolyzed product of the hydrolysis of this starch-acrylonitrile co-polymer gave water absorption greater than 400 times its weight. Also, the gel did not release liquid water the way that fiber-based absorbents do.

The polymer came to be known as “Super Slurper”. The USDA gave the technical know how to several USA companies for further development of the basic technology. A wide range of grating combinations were attempted including work with acrylic acid, acrylamide and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).”

Polyacrylate/polyacrylamide copolymers were originally designed for use in conditions with high electrolyte/mineral content and a need for long term stability including numerous wet/dry cycles. Uses include agricultural and horticultural. With the added strength of the acrylamide monomer, used as medical spill control, wire & cable waterblocking”

From the Wikipedia-data above can be deduced that not all the highly water absorbent hydrogels are safe to be used in nature.

One of the parameters of our screening tests when developing the soil conditioner TerraCottem was precisely this possible toxicity of the hydrogels.  At the end of the day we had to be sure that none of the TerraCottem hydrogels were toxic.

The TerraCottem website (www.terracottem.com) offers a lot of interesting information on the hydrogels, particularly in the section of

Frequently asked questions about the TerraCottem soil conditioning technology” :

Once for 100% sure about the non-toxicity of the water absorbing hydrogels, we were able to add to them substances belonging to different chemical groups without any danger of creating problems with soil treatment.

Hossein OMIDIAN and Kinam PARK in the

“Biomedical Applications of Hydrogels Handbook”

express their concern about application of hydrogels in diapers as follows:

Although the absorbent hydrogels  can keep the skin area dry, there is a serious concern that these synthetic materials can increase the incidence of diaper dermatitis.  Their non-biodegradability, toxicity, and environmental pollution are also of concern.”

Recently, descriptions of some alternatives for these “toxic” diapers have been published, e.g. the gDiapers, and the diapers from Seventh Generation.

The gDiapers description mentions  two parts:  a washable cloth part and a disposable, flushable liner, breaking down in the toilet. The Seventh Generation disposable diapers are said to be chemical free.

Here is the Handbook’s interesting summary:

“Crosslinked hydrophylic polymers provide superior physical, chemical, and environmental properties in their wet state.  These features have made hydrogels invaluable in numerous disciplines including: hygiene, agriculture, biomedical, and pharmaceutical.  Successful design of a hydrogel for a specific application requires careful understanding of the application and the environment that the hydrogel is intended to serve.  Although challenging, a hydrogel can be tailored to address some special need in almost any discipline due to the wide spectrum of synthetic and natural hydrogel structures and processing technologies available.”

Several times, the hope has been expressed that the producers of disposable diapers would be willing to change the production process of their diapers to make them more environmentally friendly. However, websites of many disposable diaper manufacturers show only poor information on MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets).

4. Properties of disposable diapers

Let me first list a number of interesting quotes from Wikipedia’s diaper description:

  • The decision to use cloth or disposable diapers is a controversial one, owing to issues ranging from convenience, health, cost, and their effect on the environment.
  • In the 20th century, the disposable diaper gradually evolved through the inventions of several different people.
  • Disposable diapers were introduced to the US in 1949 by Johnson & Johnson.
  • In 1956, Procter & Gamble began researching disposable diapers. Victor Mills, along with his project group including William Dehaas, both men who worked for the company, invented what would be trademarked “Pampers”.
  • Over the next few decades, the disposable diaper industry boomed and the competition between Procter & Gamble’s Pampers and Kimberly Clark‘s Huggies resulted in lower prices and drastic changes to diaper design. Several improvements were made, such as the introduction of refastenable tapes, the “hourglass shape” so as to reduce bulk at the crotch area, and the 1984 introduction of super-absorbent material from polymers known as sodium polyacrylate that were originally developed in 1966.

Nowadays, and all over the world, every child wares diapers from its birth until it is potty trained (some 8000 diapers in 2 to 4 years).  Due to their chemical composition, disposable diapers do not biodegrade easily, so that landfills contain a high percentage of these diapers.

Scientists studied the complete life cycle of different types of diapers (cloth ones and disposable ones): materials used, chemicals included, and energy consumed during production, usage and disposal. Their possible environmental impact on toxicity, acidification and eutrophication was analysed.  A number of these studies showed that most of today’s diapers contain some toxic chemicals, which makes them useless to improve the soil qualities.

For a better understanding of this problem, one can read the Wikipedia-description of diapers:


An interesting study on the “USE OF DIAPER POLYMERS AS SOIL CONDITIONER” was published by a Portugese team:

Shahidian S., Serralheiro R.P., Serrano J., Machado R., Toureiro C. and Rebocho J.
(see www.ramiran.net/ramiran2010/docs/Ramiran2010_0309_final.pdf)

In their introduction, the authors describe the properties and use of super absorbent polymers (SAP). They confirm that “Over the past years there has been a continuous reduction in their price and a generalized use of disposable diapers in the developed and some parts of the developing world. Although there are no global statistics, each child uses approximately 30 kg of polymers in his first two years of life, filling the landfills with around 400 kg of waste. However, diapers are not necessarily un-reusable waste, and SAPs have been successfully used as soil amendments to improve the physical properties of soil in view of increasing their water-holding capacity and/or nutrient retention, especially in sandy soils. SAP hydrogels potentially influence soil permeability, density, evaporation, and infiltration rates of water through the soils. Potentially, the hydrogels can reduce irrigation frequency and compaction tendency, stop erosion and water run off, and increase the soil aeration and microbial activity.

The objective of their study was “to evaluate the viability of recycling used diaper filling in agriculture, as a soil amendment. To achieve this goal, the effect of diaper filling on soil available water, crop water stress and production had to be studied, since diapers contain varying amounts of bleached cellulose fiber and other additives besides SAPs, which influence the overall effect of diaper addition to the soil.”

The study indicates that a diaper may contain as much as 10 g of SAP and that the polymer must be able to absorb liquids even when it is being pressed.

Concerning the use of polymers in agriculture, it was said that “over the past three decades both soluble and insoluble polymers have been used. Watersoluble polymers, such as polyacrylamides (PAM) have been used extensively to stabilize the soil structure and to increase infiltration and reduce runoff and erosion. Insoluble water-absorbing polymers can be divided into three main groups: the starch-graft co-polymers, the polyacrylate type widely used in disposable diapers, and the acrylamide-acrylate co-polymers, used in agriculture because of their great capacity to expand and absorb water under pressure, thus not only providing plants with water, but also helping to aerate the soil.”

The following beneficial effects of the hydrogels were listed:

  • reduce irrigation frequency;
  • reduce compaction tendency;
  • stop erosion and water run off;
  • increase the soil aeration;
  • increase the microbial activity.

A study of the effect of an amendment of sandy soil with highly cross-linked polyacrylamide on Aleppo pine seedlings during water stress  showed that the survival rates in 0.4% hydrogel were doubled,  allowing the seedlings to tolerate drought for 19 days.

Another study showed that water retention capacity of a sandy soil was significantly increased by 23 and 95% with addition of 0.03 and 0.07% polymer, respectively, and water use efficiency increased by 12 and 19% with the application of 0.03 and 0.07% w/w polymer, respectively.

Addition of an hydrogel to saline soil improved seedling growth of a salt tolerant poplar species during a period of 2 years. Root length and surface area of treated poplars was 3.5 fold more than those grown in untreated soil. Hydrogel treatment enhanced the Ca2+ uptake and increased the capacity of that salt-tolerant poplar to exclude salt (i.e. reduces contact with Na+ and Cl-).  This is another interesting aspect of hydrogel amendment, improving plant growth on somewhat saline soils.

The SAPs used in agriculture are polyelectrolyte co-polymers, often composed of acrylamide and potassium acrylate. This makes them swell much less in the presence of monovalent salts and collapse in the presence of multivalent ions, present in the soil or in fertilizers.

Most SAPs are moderately bio-degradable in the soil, converting finally to water, carbon dioxide and organic matter, leaving no undesirable chemicals in the soil or in the environment. No adverse effect has been shown on microbial populations and their toxicity for mammals is almost nonexistent.

In its experiments, the Portugese team used only new diapers in order to isolate the influence of the diaper SAP and fiber from that of the urea and other organic compound present in used diapers. The treatment plots received 100g per square meter of dry diaper content (the equivalent of 10 diapers), which was mixed in the 0.2 m topsoil prior to planting. This is roughly equivalent to 0.2 g per kg of soil. Thus, diaper filling (cellulose and SAPs) were added to soil at the lower limits recommended by literature. Where other researchers found that SAPs enhance available water in the soil, the Portugese team reported that the adding of diaper filling had a negative effect on both available soil water and crop production. Thus, their data are not in line with the general findings: SAPs increase crop survival and biomass production. It was therefore decided to carry out further experiments, especially with different concentrations of diaper fillings and different crops in order to encounter the right balance for using diaper fillings as a soil ameliorant.

5. Components of a typical disposable diaper

The basic components of a typical disposable diaper are already described in detail by Richer Investment Diaper Consulting Services (2007):


  1. A back sheet, preventing liquids from leaking out of the diaper, made of plastics (polyethylene) or breathable cloth-like material.
  2. A special tissue paper with high elasticity and wet strength, used as a carrier for the pad.
  3. Hot melts (resins, oils, tackifiers) to glue the different components of the diapers (pad and elastics).
  4. Hydrophobic Non-woven: top sheet for the leg cuffs to prevent leakage, made of polypropylene resin.
  5. Hydrophylic Non-woven: top surface that is in contact with the skin, with surface surfactants allowing the liquids to flow into the diaper core.
  6. Elastics in cuffs for waist and legs, made of polyurethane of polyester foam.
  7. Lateral tapes for mechanical grip, made of velcro or polypropylene adhesive tabs.
  8. Frontal tapes to facilitate multiple repositioning of the lateral tape, made of polypropylene film.
  9. Cellulose pulp from pine trees in the pad for absorbing liquids in the void capillaries between the fibers.
  10. Acquisition and distribution layer between the top sheet and the absorbent core to provide a sense of dryness by additional separation between the pad and the skin, made of non-wovens or fibers.
  11. Sodium polyacrylate (super-absorbent polymer or SAP): fine granules to improve liquid retention and keep the pad thinner (less pulp).  In contact with water, the sodium detaches itself and the polymer absorbs water, solidifying into a gel.
  12. Top Sheet surface add-on lotions, like Aloe vera, vitamin D or E, almond oil, oat extract, jojoba, etc.
  13. Decorated films (different inks) and wetness indicators.


6. Disposable diapers and the environment in the past

The American Real Diaper Association described a number of diaper facts (health, environment, dryness and rash, cost):


Here are some facts about the environment:

  • Based on their calculations, they estimated that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are consumed every year in the U.S. and 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill.
  • In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags. No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years.
  • Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste.
  • Disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp.
  • The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth.
  • Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.
  • In 1991, an attempt towards recycling disposable diapers was made in the city of Seattle, involving 800 families, 30 day care centers, a hospital and a Seattle-based recycler for a period of one year. The conclusion made by Procter & Gamble was that recycling disposable diapers was not an economically feasible task on any scale.

7. Disposable diapers and the environment in the future

It goes without saying that the discarding of disposable diapers is one of the major problems for the environment (see figures above).

Taking into account :

  • That the global landfills contain billions of tons of used disposable diapers (4 % of all solid waste);
  • That the disposable diapers are still made of synthetic materials that biodegrade extremely slowly in landfills;
  • That the presence of some toxic synthetic materials in today’s diapers may create a number of health problems;
  • That the presence of water absorbing sodium acrylate






Combating desertification in South Africa (Willem Van Cotthem / Michelle Greyvenstein)

Interesting message from South Africa

by Michelle Greyvenstein

Good day Mr. van Cotthem,

I have been reading up on your blogs on sand dams.  Very very interesting and very much in need in Southern Africa as well.  I am looking to make a difference in South Africa and I hope that you will be able to assist me in the execution of my dream and vision of a better future for all in this beautiful country.

I am hoping that you will be able to guide me in the right direction.  We are setting up projects to create jobs in small rural towns in the more arid areas of Southern Africa.  We are looking at small towns with 80% unemployment rate and higher.  The idea is to put together a workable and sustainable plan to create jobs and also address issues like alcohol and substance abuse.  Big problems with foetal alcohol syndrome and we want to do our best to obliterate that.

I sat down and started putting small projects together to create work for women in  particular.  Bee keepers, handwork, leather shoes with African beading, wool products, mohair products, living gardens in handmade concrete boxes, etc.  

Our main object though is to create sustainable income with harvesting a local declared weed for animal feed. What I would like to know:  is it possible to change the climate in arid areas by planting drought resistant plants that can be used for food, fuel and animal feed.  Will the plants be able to make a positive impact on the ground and the climate.  I am looking at using plants to try and turnaround areas previously marked as desert and semi-desert areas back to useable fertile land that can be used for food crops.

I will really appreciate your input if possible.

Kind Regards

Michelle Greyvenstein

RTM Project Support Administrator

British American Tobacco South Africa


My reply (Willem Van Cotthem)

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for your message and congratulations for your efforts.

I will first try to answer your questions:

(1) Is it possible to change the climate in arid areas by planting drought resistant plants that can be used for food, fuel and animal feed?

In order to change the local climate in a significant way, one needs to cover up a desertlike environment with trees and shrubs.  These will transpire a lot of water in the air and give sufficient shadow over the soil to limit evaporation of the soil moisture.  Gradually the area will become less arid.

I see one immediate solution for South Africa, that is to start planting cuttings of the Elephant bush (spekboom, Portulacaria afra), a drought tolerant species that is widespread in the country and is favourite fodder for animals (elephants, antelopes, goats, sheep, etc.).  It has a remarkable characteristic: little leaves falling on the soil start rooting with some moisture and give new plants, forming a real bush.

I would start with spekboom cuttings in a nursery and multiply constantly to be able to cover a large area.

One can also use a drought tolerant bamboo: 

Oxytenanthera abyssinica, the savannah bamboo (see Google).  It is a very hardy bamboo and can grow on poor soils.  This fast growing species can also be grown from cuttings and rhizomes. People use it to make various types of local baskets for transporting produce, but the main use is as building material (scaffolding, house construction, fencing, even furniture).  It could be used for soil erosion control and rehabilitation of degraded areas.


(2) Will the plants be able to make a positive impact on the ground and the climate?  I am looking at using plants to try and turnaround areas previously marked as desert and semi-desert areas back to useable fertile land that can be used for food crops.

Growing plants always have a positive impact on the soil.  As for the climate, it depends upon the density of the vegetation cover (one needs bushes or even a wood with trees).

Aiming at turning a desertlike area into fertile land is a rather difficult exercise.  One of the well-known methods is densely seeding the land with leguminous species. Please read this article:

<http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/61/5/1257.full> (African legumes: a vital but under-utilized resource).

You will find a lot of interesting ideas, e.g. the use of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), gum arabic tree (Acacia senegal), honeybush (Cyclopia), rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis), groundnut (Arachis hypogea), etc.

Once (and not before) the effect of these leguminous species is significant, one can start to use the land for food crops.

However, I would like to recommend the set up of plantations of the spineless cactus Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis (which means without spines).  Please Google “nopales” to find sufficient information on the huge plantations in Central and South America, where billions of people are eating these cactus pads and fruits.


(3) My attention was taken to your project : “living gardens in handmade concrete boxes”.

This is extremely interesting, because it coincides with my continuous efforts to convince people to switch from classic gardening (food production in a kitchen garden) to “CONTAINER GARDENING”.

As you know, the main problem for gardeners is the quality of the soil (drought, lack of organic matter, pests, etc.).

Well, by growing vegetables and herbs in all sorts of containers (pots, buckets, bottles, plastic bags, sacks, barrels, etc.) one can avoid most of these gardening problems.  Let me recommend to have a good look at my websites and Facebook pages concerning container gardening and you will discover numerous simple, cheap and efficient ideas for food production in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid regions.























It could be helpful to check out my different videos on YOU TUBE.

Please go to: https://www.youtube.com/user/willemvcot

Hoping that this can help you to find the right direction for your initiatives, I wish you a lot success.

Kind regards,

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem

Photo credit: Leen Geerts - Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem
Photo credit: Leen Geerts – Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem

Fertile land and sustainable water sources are diminishing at a frightening rate

Photo credit: Excellent

No such thing as a free lunch

“Before we used to get some good rains that enabled us to get enough food but in the recent years it has been gradually decreasing and we are now not able to get enough food, even though we put efforts in farming.”

Joseph Kilonzo, Mumbuka self-help group, southeast Kenya

Migration and conflict over sparse resources are already on the rise, and if current trends continue, hunger and poverty are likely to become more widespread.

Promoting soil health could help achieve SGDs

 Photo credit: SciDevHealth

Image credit: Hailey Tucker, One Acre Fund

  • Focus on soil health to achieve SDGs

    “Many of us fail to consider the importance of preserving the health of the earth’s soils for now and generations to come.” 
     David Guerena and Margaret Vernon, One Acre Fund

    Speed read

    • In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 65 per cent of soils are degraded
    • Promoting soil health could lead to biodiversity and increased productivity
    • The results may take time, but promoting soil health could help achieve SGDs


    Crucial and last frontier

    Seventy per cent of poor people in rural areas depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. [4] These rural areas comprise large numbers of smallholder farmers, who cultivate less than two acres of land.

    Lacking access to quality inputs, tools training, and financing, smallholder farmers are often at the mercy of unproductive soil. Promoting soil health, through strategies such as agroforestry, intercropping and composting is one important way to increase the productivity of these small plots of land.

    These strategies could help smallholder farming communities increase their resilience to environmental shocks and grow their way out of hunger and poverty.

    Soil is the greatest reservoir and the last frontier of biodiversity. Most known antibiotics come from organisms that were isolated from the soil. The soil biosphere controls the cycling of most major plant nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. What other secrets are held in the soil biosphere? In one gram (one pinch) of soil, there are over one billion individual organisms and over one million unique species! [5] We know less than one per cent of who they are and less than one per cent of one per cent of what they do.

    Read the full article: SciDevNet


Soil indicators and SDGs

Photo credit: SciDevNet

Image credit: flickr/John Isaac, UN

  • Push for soil indicators to help monitor SDGs

    Speed read

    • The MDGs include just one indicator of land use and none of soil quality
    • This should change for the SDGs, say specialists, as they relate to many goals
    • Soil specialists can learn from climate scientists in changing policy

    A group of land and soil specialists has proposed three indicators to measure soil health that they say could help the UN monitor its future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

    The UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which expire this year, include one indicator referring directly to land use (the proportion of land area covered by forest) and none related to soil quality. But things should change under the SDGs, which will guide global development efforts after 2015, say the soil managers in a statement issued earlier this month (3 March).

    The authors lay out a package of three indicators to track both biophysical and socioeconomic changes: land cover and land use change; land productivity change; and change in soil organic carbon. These topics deserve more political attention, and the UN’s Statistical Commission should include these measures in its list of indicators to monitor progress towards the SDGs, the authors say.
    Read the full article: SciDevNet


Traditional practices for fragile sandy soils in semi-arid regions

Photo credit: Agricultures Network

During the short rains manure is dug into the fields. Photo: Alejandro Bonifacio

Traditional fallows support resilient farming on semi-arid sandy soils



The arid southern highlands of the Bolivian Andes are a harsh environment for even the most hardened farmers. The ‘quinoa boom’ and the move to mechanisation have led to shortened fallows and a drastic drop in soil organic matter. The dry sandy soils and the natural vegetation they support are increasingly degraded, but in the face of climate change and higher risks of drought, frosts and hailstorms, technical recommendations pay little attention to soil health. Farmers in the community of Lloco, however, have preserved their traditional practices that care for their fragile sandy soils and maintain resilience.

After the tallest shrubs are cut and left on the ground as mulch, manure from the grazing areas is piled on the fields, dug into the soil and covered with sikuya straw to protect it from erosion and maintain moisture. Photos: Alejandro Bonifacio - http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/traditional-fallows/shrubs.jpg
After the tallest shrubs are cut and left on the ground as mulch, manure from the grazing areas is piled on the fields, dug into the soil and covered with sikuya straw to protect it from erosion and maintain moisture. Photos: Alejandro Bonifacio – http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/traditional-fallows/shrubs.jpg

Fallow, manure and mulch

After a ‘typical’ 20 to 30 year fallow, site preparation begins 3-12 months before the rainy season. The tallest shrubs are cut, leaving cut material on the ground as mulch and leaving the smaller shrubs and herbs alone. Manure is moved from grazing areas and piled where the shrubs were cut and covered with straw to reduce nutrient loss from strong winds that are common. Most families in Lloco collect manure from their own llama herds, otherwise they have to exchange or buy it from families with larger grazing areas.

In the middle of the short rains which usually last only two months (January and February), manure is spread evenly over the fields and hoed in, before the soil is covered with straw from a common unpalatable local grass called sikuya. The straw protects against erosion, against the sun, and reduces the soil from drying out during the cold and dry months. Timing of this activity is crucial, to maximise soil moisture and nutrients, in preparation for planting six months later. Crops are sown in advance of the rainy season, so that there is enough time to complete a growing cycle before the onset of winter. Potatoes are planted for two to three consecutive years before being followed by quinoa and barley. The typical rotation may be described as potato-potato-potato-barley, potato-potatoquinoa-barley or potato-quinoa, depending on the soil fertility and soil humidity.

Read the full article: Agricultures Network

Composting made easy

Photo credit: Agricultures Network

In 8-12 weeks, the straw from a hectare of paddy can produce 2.5 tonnes of good quality compost. Photo: U Kyaw Saing

Keeping composting simple

More than two decades ago in the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar, farmers began planting two rice crops each year. Rice production increased, but for how long? Depleted organic matter and acidification are now affecting soil health, and farmers who can’t afford fertilizer are seeing their rice yields declining. This is why 200 farmers started to compost rice straw. With this they have been able to maintain rice yields and reduce fertilizer costs. They are still improving their composting techniques and some are starting to experiment with green manures.
Over the past year farmers have built over 200 compost piles and are already experiencing the benefits. Photo: Myo Kyaw Kyaw - http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/composting/addingsoiltocompost.jpg
Over the past year farmers have built over 200 compost piles and are already experiencing the benefits. Photo: Myo Kyaw Kyaw – http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/composting/addingsoiltocompost.jpg

Compost made easy

In 8-12 weeks, the straw from a hectare of paddy can produce 2.5 tonnes of good quality compost, which when added to the soil provides 50 kg of nitrogen, or 40-50% of the total nitrogen requirements of a rice crop. Cutting fertilizer costs by half is a huge advantage for farmers as they struggle with debt from the need to buy more and more fertilizer each year.

The basic compost combination is dry matter, fresh green matter and a microbial input. Rice straw, dried leaves and even coconut fibre are good sources of dry matter. Freshly cut leaves and weeds, banana trunks, water hyacinth, or any plants in and around the fields and gardens are used as green matter. The microbial input helps to transform the biomass into the nutrient-rich material we call compost, whether it is fresh soil, forest humus, animal manure or fresh compost. Handfuls of wood ash add phosphorus and potassium and even the basic combination can be adapted. If a farmer has no more green matter, he will still get compost but of a different quality. And if manure is in short supply, it helps to add a diluted solution of cow or pig dung with rice straw and other dry matter. This promotes the growth of microbes, nitrogen content and decomposition, and is a cheap and easy way to overcome the lack of green matter or manure.

Read the full article: Agricultures Network


The slash and mulch technique in semi-arid regions

Photo credit: Agricultures Network

Crusted soils yield sorghum again after branches of camel’s foot are cut from the surrounding scrub and added as mulch. Photos: Georges Félix

From slash and burn to ‘slash and mulch’

In semi-arid cropping regions of West Africa, fallow periods are getting shorter. As land becomes more scarce, farmers are not able to give their soils enough time to rest. This is leading to depletion of soil organic matter, severely threatening soil fertility and damaging soil structure. In the worst cases, crops hardly yield anything anymore. But this is not an option for family farmers. In Burkina Faso, some have found ways to restore their soils that have been dubbed ‘slash and mulch’. The improvement and spread of these techniques also proves the importance of partnerships between farmers and researchers in developing locally suited practices.
Farmers and agronomists are conducting experiments to find a balance between crop yields, feeding their cattle and improving the soil. Photos: George Félix - http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/slash-and-mulch/yieldslivestocksoil.jpg
Farmers and agronomists are conducting experiments to find a balance between crop yields, feeding their cattle and improving the soil. Photos: George Félix – http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/slash-and-mulch/yieldslivestocksoil.jpg

Catching and holding the rain

Food production in Yilou, semi-arid Burkina Faso and in much of dryland Africa, is supported by only three to four months of rainfall each year. The main crops around Yilou are sorghum, cowpea, sesame, okra and other vegetables, hibiscus, and maize around the homesteads. But producing enough food to sustain family nutrition year round is an enormous challenge. Typically, farmers quickly prepare their land at the start of the rains in early June, plant by mid-June, and hope that the rains are abundant and evenly spread throughout the season.

Farmers and agronomists are conducting experiments to find a balance between crop yields, feeding their cattle and improving the soil. Photos: George Félix - http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/slash-and-mulch/yieldslivestocksoil.jpg
Farmers and agronomists are conducting experiments to find a balance between crop yields, feeding their cattle and improving the soil. Photos: George Félix – http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/soils-for-life/slash-and-mulch/yieldslivestocksoil.jpg

As rainfall is short and intense, with only an average of 500-600 mm each year, minimising runoff and increasing infiltration are crucial. Also, the more soil is covered, more rain infiltrates and less will evaporate. And reducing runoff with physical barriers such as stone bunds and mulch has the added benefit of reducing soil erosion and sediment loss, an important step in rehabilitating degraded lands.

 Read the full article: Agricultures Network


Desertification Cycle

Namibia Africa National Park High Resolution Images

Reversing the Cycle of Desertification

by Al Baydha



After waiting for three years for rain, Al Baydha Project finally got a second test of its water system, and the results were fantastic. As we increase the tree cover, we will decrease evaporation, increase wind break, shade cover, soil biota, and the soil’s capacity to absorb water. Thus we can reverse the cycle of desertification and replace it with a cycle of regeneration, until the land can support fruit trees, grazing animals, honeybees, and other desert produce.

Soil fertility

Photo credit: Google

Soil erosion in Central African Republic

Protecting Soil Fertility: Protecting Life

Submitted by Coordination Team

There is much discussion in the development arena about the struggle ahead to feed the seven plus billion, of the methods proposed towards food security, building resilience, safeguarding water resources and so on. But few stop to ponder the basic ingredient in all of this: the very land under our feet, and the starting point of all agricultural productivity. At the European Development Days, EuropeAid hosted a Lab session dedicated to the relevance of soils in development policy, featuring the release earlier this year of the first Soil Atlas of Africa.

In many places, it can take up to 2000 years to create a mere 10 centimetres of fertile soil, which can be washed or blown away in a matter of hours in a severe storm, or depleted in a few years of poorly managed land and water use.

Soil profile - http://wildseed.co.uk/image/1298/large
Soil profile – http://wildseed.co.uk/image/1298/large

Across the planet, arable land is being diminished: for example, by urbanisation, mono-culture, farming on slopes, and deforestation. In 2011 alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil was lost, at a time when the land needs better management in order to provide enough food for the exploding population.

Read the full article: capacity4dev.eu


Land Quality and Landscape Processes

Photo credit : IYS

International Conference on “Land Quality and Landscape Processes”

2-4 June 2015

including two workshops on the 3rd of June 2015

  I. Workshop

Symposium of the Sino-EU Panel on Land and Soil on “Resource use efficiency in agriculture in Europe and China with special focus on land quality”

II. Workshop

Meeting of the Soil and Land NEXUS of the Danube Strategy of the European Union “Soil information in the Danube basin”



Hotel Helikon, Keszthely, Hungary



8360 Balaton part, 5.

The conference is held in the city of Keszthely, Western Hungary (Pannonia), home of Georgikon, the first agricultural university  in Europe founded in 1797.


Soil restorations: mulching, composting, erosion checks, biochar

Photo credit: Permaculture News

The practical on-ground (demonstration) site of The Ghana Permaculture Institute

Regenerative/Permaculture Practice in Ghana

by Matthew Onyeanula


The Ghana Permaculture Institute was established in 2004 And is located in Techiman of the Brong Ahafo Region in Ghana It has two sites, one a Lecture site located in the city while the other site a practical on-ground (demonstration) site.

The demonstrated site located in Tanoboase near Baafi initially had degraded due to the fact that the top soils had been removed through erosion caused by deforestation and poor agriculture techniques. We have been doing a lot of land restorations through using techniques such as mulching, composting, erosion checks more. The demonstration site is now a place to behold as plants are doing very well together with the environment.

%d bloggers like this: