03/19/2013 08:47 am ET | Updated May 19, 2013

How to Triple Food Production in Africa

Every March since 1973, the Agriculture Council of America has organized National Agriculture (Ag) Day, which recognizes and celebrates all that we've gained by advances in agricultural technology. Because agriculture has become a global enterprise, today on National Ag Day, I want to bring a perspective from Africa, a continent that still suffers from widespread hunger and malnutrition. But this need not be the case. The technologies exist to monitor soils in real time, dramatically increase crop yields and improve access to markets. What's needed is stronger global cooperation to build policies around the best practices in agricultural science.

The main reason for such pervasive hunger and malnutrition is the extremely low yield of corn, the primary food crop in most of sub-Saharan Africa, where it is eaten as commonly as grits are in the southern United States. Africa's average corn yields are approximately 16 bushels per acre (1 metric ton /hectare) while in the U.S. average corn yields are ten times greater, over 160 bushels/acre (10 tons/hectare). This difference is owed to the continued depletion of soil fertility caused by decades of extracting nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon during crop harvests without replenishing these important elements via fertilizers, organic or mineral, a practice that the rest of the world has adopted.

Over the past 11 years, the Agriculture and Food Security Center at the Earth Institute, Columbia University has worked to improve rural livelihoods, human nutrition, and environmental sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa. We have done this by leading the United Nations Millennium Project Hunger Task Force, which recommended policies to overcome hunger to African governments and development partners.

These policies included:

· increasing the use of fertilizers and hybrid corn with subsidies and government support

· with the Earth Institute and other partners, establishing 14 clusters of 80 Millennium Villages in 10 African countries. Each cluster representing an agro-ecological zone with specific farming systems with high incidences of hunger and malaria

· establishing two regional centers in Kenya and Senegal to promote policies;

· and conducting research on any potentially negative environmental impacts of increased fertilizer use in Africa.

As a result, corn yields have more than doubled in the Millennium Villages and, in Malawi, they are reaching 40-50 bushels per acre. Many lives are being saved with the free distribution of mosquito bed nets, the building of rural clinics and implementation of a community health worker system. Children are receiving free nutritious school meals, and small businesses are springing up throughout the clusters. Some of the best farmers in the Millennium Villages have produced 160 bushels of corn per hectare, so the potential to achieve even higher yields is clear. But to go beyond 50 bushels per acre, we must join science with fertilizer and organic input recommendations. To do this, we have started a bottom up and top down approach.

The new SoilDoc device, or lab-in-a-box, can determine on site, using battery-powered miniaturized sensors, the main parameters necessary for fertilizer recommendations as accurately as large wet chemistry laboratories. The results are captured using Android software and a smart phone allowing the results to be sent instantly, thus fertilizer and organic matter recommendations can be made in less than two days. This is in contrast to African farmers sending soil samples to a lab which may either never arrive, or be forgotten, with the farmers unable to see results for as long as one or two years, after crops are harvested. We are also leading the development of a digital soil map of Africa where critical soil properties such as acidity and organic carbon will be mapped at a 100-meter resolution, or pixels as small as 2.5 acres. This will provide a level of information never before seen in Africa, or frankly anywhere. The NRCS, the USDA's National Resource Conservation Service, is developing a similar digital soil map for the US.

With many other initiatives such as USAID's Feed the Future combined with a strong commitment to agriculture in well-governed African countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal among others, food production is beginning to increase in Africa. The specter of massive hunger by a world population of 10 billion in 2050 is not as large as it once was.