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In Africa, using ants and termites to increase crop yields

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Mackson Wasamunu/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A farmer stands over a pile of maize (corn) cobs near Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Maize is a major crop in this Southern Africa country. While termites can be a pest in maize fields, the insects are used to enhance the soil for many African crops, such as bananas and other fruits and vegetables.

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With around 1 billion hungry people globally, finding a way to improve crop production remains a challenge. 

This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa faces an extraordinary soil fertility crisis, which decreases crop yield and contributes to food shortages.  Local farmers report that they can no longer maintain soil fertility and that harvests are declining 15–25 percent a year. Most farmers expect that within the next five years their harvests will drop by half, and some villages are already dependent on food aid.

One way that farmers are working to increase crop yield, however, is through the use of termites and ants.

 IN PHOTOS: Food security in Africa

Recent research conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney reveals that ants could also help farmers increase crop yields. The findings show that termites and ants improve soil fertility in drylands by digging tunnels that allow plants greater access to water.

The research also found that termites provide plants additional nutrients because they increase the amount of nitrogen contained in soil. This is done through nitrogen-heavy bacteria in their stomachs, which allows them to transmit nitrogen into soil through their saliva and feces.

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