Keywords: Striga hermonthica, Sorghum bicolor, soil fertility, organic matter, N-mineralisation, farmers’ priority, production constraints, intensification.
The problem of the parasitic weed striga (Striga hermonthica (Del.) Benth.) has worsened for African farmers, in conjunction with degrading soil fertility. An analysis of the striga problem showed that scientists, policy makers and farmers conceptualise striga differently. Whether striga is viewed as a weed or a symptom of degraded soils raises two questions: Should farmers control striga, even when the impact on yields would be negligible? Or should fertility enhancement, leading to higher yields, be their focus, even when not accompanied by an immediate reduction in striga? This study seeks to understand how organic matter inputs affect nutrient dynamics, sorghum (Sorghum bicolor [L.] Moench) production and striga abundance.
Surveys in northern Cameroon showed that striga infestation increased over the past two decades. Increased land pressure led to reduced fallow periods and enhanced cereal (mono-) cropping. Reduced access to fertiliser and manure hampered options to improve soil fertility. Yields from farmers’ fields did not correlate with striga incidence, confirming farmers’ prioritisation of soil fertility, weeds, and labour as production constraints, rather than striga. The entry point to tackle low yields and the worsening of the striga situation should follow farmers’ priority of alleviating low soil fertility.
Whether and how soil fertility improvement, through organic matter, enhances agricultural productivity and reduces striga, was investigated in field experiments. Organic matter amendments significantly depressed striga seed survival, with the strongest effect achieved at higher quality; presumably due to higher microbial activity. Organic matter enhanced soil water retention and soil temperature but without effects on striga seed survival. Organic matter did not affect soil ethylene concentrations. The effect of organic matter amendments was directly related to N mineralisation, both for better cereal growth and reduced striga survival. The organic matter amendments and use of fallow, as applied here, however, may not be practicable for the resource-poor farmer.
Increasing N-fertilisation increased sorghum root N mass concentration, which resulted in a lower striga seed germination. That relationship was linear up to a root N mass concentration of 19.5 mg g-1 where seed germination was close to but always still above 0%.
In a broader framework of the research findings, the ultimate solution for farm productivity for Africa is in sustainable farm intensification by investing in soil fertility. However, the prevailing land tenure system and limited access to fertiliser and organic matter need to be overcome. A new conceptual model is proposed, indicating how changes in both cereal yield and striga infestation over time co-vary with changes in soil fertility. The implication of this model is that recovery of soil fertility should be the priority. The challenge to agronomists remains to consider how to make farm intensification rewarding and attainable for resource-poor farmers. In areas where striga is an obstacle, an integrated scheme for the intensification of cereal cropping should start with integrated soil fertility management. Crop rotation and intercropping with selected non-host leguminous crops are essential ingredients.