Geochemistry brings societal benefits to sub-Saharan Africa... by Michael Watts

Michael Watts
Michael Watts, Head of Inorganic Geochemistry at the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry, outlines how BGS is bringing big societal benefits to sub-Saharan Africa by supporting earth science researchers and academic networks. Before outline these benefits Michael explains the project framework and major partners involved....   
The Inorganic Geochemistry team within the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry recently won a consortia grant from the Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative.  This grant was won by successful partnership with the University of Nottingham, universities and research institutes in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The initiative aims to strengthen the research capacity of universities and research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by supporting the development of sustainable research networks between SSA and the UK.  The project will run until 2020 (£1.243M) and produce a cadre of young, talented researchers through integrated PhD scholarships and shared supervision between the UK and Africa consortia members.  It will focus on one of the three RS-DFID priority areas, soil geochemistry, the other areas being water & sanitation and renewable energy. 
This consortia will undertake experimentation to better understand the biogeochemical controls on trace element mobility and their soil-to-crop transfer through improvement of soil analytical capabilities, soil geochemical mapping and predictive modelling. Understanding soil geochemical processes is essential to support policies in agriculture (e.g. liming, nutrient inputs, organic residue incorporation) and public health (e.g. mineral deficiencies and toxicities).

Sampling team in the Zambian Copperbelt region, BGS, ZARI and CBU
Benefits to Society

The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG 1) of the United Nations, ‘to reduce extreme poverty and hunger’, will not be met by 2015 in many African countries. Even where staple food is plentiful, chronic micronutrient deficiencies (e.g. zinc, iron, iodine, calcium, selenium), termed ‘hidden hunger’, often constrain development. To place this in context, in Malawi, we have been able to estimate for pilot studies that zinc deficiency carries an annual health burden of ~3,800 childhood deaths and ~100,000 ‘lost’ healthy life-years; an economic burden of >1% of GDP. Hidden hunger also affects wider MDGs directly by causing cognitive dysfunction and growth retardation (MDGs 2,3), mortality (MDGs 4,5) and disease (MDG 6). Soil geospatial drivers of primary production and hidden hunger are widely recognised in the geochemical control of soil-to-crop transfer of minerals. However, understanding, capturing and integrating soil geochemical processes across multiple scales to deliver effective policy support has not yet been achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa due to gaps in data and in technical and analytical capacity.

This project will improve the understanding of soil geochemistry to underpin decision support tools for agriculture (e.g. liming, nutrient management and organic residue incorporation strategies) and public health (e.g. identifying regions at risk of micronutrient deficiencies and toxicities). We anticipate our project to support wider and sustainable development policies. The participation of government research institutes and their extension services alongside partner university staff in all countries ensures that societal benefits from translating research outcomes into soil-related policy are achieved as efficiently as possible.

Local interest and enthusiasm in our activities

Aligned activities

The overall programme of work for the consortia allows for additional PhD projects (and other funding opportunities) to be aligned to the RS-DFID project to connect work on soil geochemistry-dietary mineral intake-health impact-socio-economic impact.  In Malawi, there will be an additional PhD student developing a biomarker measurement for selenium health status at a population scale; in Zambia, we have Elliott Hamilton (BGS Inorganic Geochemistry team) undertaking a part-time PhD on metal speciation-modelling of controls on chromium soil-to-crop transfer in agricultural soils close to mine tailings in the Copperbelt region; and in Zimbabwe a third PhD student yet to be assigned.

A recent visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe to make preparations for collaborative efforts included fieldwork in the Copperbelt with Murray Lark and Elliott Hamilton, with the Copperbelt University and Zambian Agricultural Research Institute.  Murray and Elliott will write a follow-up blog to explain more. 


Want to know more about the topics included in this post? Here's a reading list of recent academic outputs from the research consortia:

Gibson RS, Wawer AA, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Hurst R, Young SD, Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Kalimbira A, Bailey KB, Siyame EWP. (2015). Dietary iron intakes based on food composition data may underestimate the contribution of potentially exchangeable contaminant iron from soil, Journal of Analytical Food Research (in press).

Joy, EJM, Broadley, MR, Young, SD, Black CR, Chilimba, ADC, Ander, EL, Barlow, TS and Watts, MJ*. (2015). Soil type influences crop mineral composition in Malawi, Science Total Environment, 505, 587-595.

Joy, E, Ander, EL, Young, SD, Black, C, Watts, MJ, Chilimba, ADC, Chilima, B, Siyame, E, Kalimbira, A, Hurst, R, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Stein, A, Gibson, RS, White, P, Broadley, M. (2014) Dietary mineral supplies in Africa, Physiologia Plantarum, 151, 208-229.

Siyame E; Hurst R; Wawer AW;Young SD; Broadley MR; Chilimba ADC Ander EL; Watts MJ; Chilima B; Gondwe J; Kang’ombe D; Kalimbira A; Fairweather-Tait SJ; Bailey KB; Gibson RS. (2014). A high prevalence of zinc but not iron deficiency among Women in Rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 83, 3, 176-187.

Hurst, R, Siyame, E, Young, SD, Chilimba, ADC, Joy, EJM, Black, CR, Ander, EL, Watts, MJ, Chilima, B, Gondwe, J, Kang’ombe, D, Stein, AJ, Fairweather-Tait, SJ, Gibson, R, Kalimbira, A, Broadley, MR*. (2013). Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 3, 1425.

Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Joy, E, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Hurst R, Fairweather-Tait SJ, White PJ, Gibson RS. (2012). Dietary requirements for magnesium but not calcium are likely to be met in Malawi based on national food supply data, International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82(3), 192-199.

Joy EJM, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ and Broadley MR. (2012). Risk of dietary magnesium deficiency is low in most African countries based on food supply data, Plant and Soil, 368. 129-137.

W H Shetaya, S D Young, M J Watts, E L Ander and E H Bailey (2012). Iodine dynamics in soils, Geochemica et Cosmochimica Acta, 77, 457 – 473.

Chilimba, A.D.C., Young, S.D., Black, C.R., Ander, E.L., Watts, M.J., Lammel, J. and Broadley, M.R. (2011). Maize grain and soil surveys reveal suboptimal dietary selenium intake is widespread in Malawi, Scientific Reports, 1, 1 - 9.