Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a food security crisis, worsened by the ongoing electricity, fuel, and fertilizer shortages, along with the conflict in Ukraine, says Simon Norton, executive director of the International Zinc Association (IZA) Africa.
According to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises Mid-Year Update, at least one in five Africans goes to bed hungry, and an estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity.
In this context, zinc is emerging as a critical nutrient to enhance crop yields and nutrition, especially in countries suffering from persistent drought or those dependent on wheat and sunflower oil imports from Russia and Ukraine.
“Adding zinc fertilizer to soils is a straightforward intervention that can go a long way to increase crop yield and nutritional value significantly, while boosting the bottom line for farmers,” explains Norton.
Currently, 50% of agricultural soils used for cereal cultivation are potentially zinc deficient. Zinc deficiency reduces yield capacity and lowers the nutritional value of food crops. It is one of the eight key trace elements that plants require for normal growth and reproduction.
Plants need zinc in small but critical concentrations for several essential functions, including membrane function, photosynthesis, protein synthesis, phytohormone synthesis, seedling vigour, sugar formation, and defense against disease and abiotic stress factors like drought.
Even when a plant’s macronutrient requirements of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and water are met, zinc deficiency prevents plants from reaching their full potential. The prevalence of zinc-deficient soils in major agricultural zones, including Southern Africa, severely limits agricultural productivity, thereby compromising food security.
A study for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that it was the most commonly deficient micronutrient in the world. Out of 190 field trials in 15 countries, zinc deficiency was prevalent in one out of every two.
Zinc fertilizers can, therefore, make a significant contribution towards the goal of higher crop yields in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner. Additionally, these fertilizers can enhance grain concentration, thus contributing greatly to the daily zinc intake of human populations.
It is an essential micronutrient that plays a critical role in ensuring food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its addition to soils as a compound fertilizer can significantly increase crop yield and nutritional value, benefiting both farmers and consumers. In this challenging context of rising food insecurity, addressing this deficiency in soil can be an impactful solution to increase agricultural productivity and protect the health and well-being of millions of Africans.