Print options

October 16, 2012

Study: End Fertilizer Subsidies to Fight Hunger

by Steve Baragona

Subsidizing farmers’ fertilizer is a poor way to fight hunger and should be phased out, according to a new report from a leading agriculture research group.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is also calling for better protection of poor farmers' land rights.

Making farms more productive

Many developing-country governments around the world have poured money into fertilizer subsidies to make their farms more productive.

“Subsidies are a short-term solution to a long-term problem and they’re not sustainable,” says IFPRI researcher Claudia Ringler, co-author of the new report.

She says fertilizer subsidies do boost food production. Government figures in Malawi, for example, show that country’s landmark program helped triple maize production in the late 2000s.

However, she says the program consumes up to 20 percent of Malawi’s budget. And rising fertilizer prices have forced the government to scale it back.

Ringler says it would be more effective to tackle the big issues in developing-world agriculture.

“There should be much more investment in extension services and rural infrastructure," she says. "There’s just better ways of using scarce government funds than to support one agriculture input.”

Columbia University soil scientist Pedro Sanchez is a World Food Prize winner who helped Malawi develop its subsidy program.

“Fertilizer subsidies have, certainly, their limitations,” he says. “But Malawi would not be what it is right now, a country that has a surplus of maize, without the fertilizer subsidies.”

'Smart subsidies'

Sanchez and Ringler agree that subsidies can contribute to environmental problems. They point to India’s electricity subsidy for farmers who are depleting groundwater to irrigate their crops.

But smart subsidies adjust with the times, Sanchez says.

“I think we need these [subsidies] to kick-start [the economy] and then figure out a way to phase them out as the economy progresses. But the economy has to progress.”

Ringler says developing countries are not the only ones with problematic subsidies.

“We are not saying India should reduce its subsidies and the United States should not do so. This is really a global call for everyone.”

The two agriculture experts note that subsidies can be hard to phase out because they are politically popular in the United States as well as in the developing world.

Land rights

The new IFPRI report also highlights one of the biggest barriers to meeting this century’s hunger challenges: the lack of land rights for developing-world farmers.

Tom Arnold, head the advocacy group Concern Worldwide, points to the situation in Tanzania.

“Although 90 percent of farmers claim ownership of land, the reality is that less than 10 percent of Tanzanians hold an official title to their land.”

IFPRI’s Claudia Ringler says farmers could make their land more productive by investing in irrigation or improving the soil.

“But why would I do that if I don’t have the right, if I’m not sure if this land really belongs to me or if someone might take it away from me tomorrow.”

And Arnold says, in recent years, investors from wealthy countries have been purchasing huge tracts of land in Africa - often displacing poor farmers working there without title - in order to grow biofuels and other crops.

“There’s a general assumption, I think, that the great plains of Africa hold lots of land that’s not used by anybody," Arnold says. "Well, that’s actually not true.”

Official ownership

Concern Worldwide has worked with the Tanzanian government to help small-scale farmers gain official ownership of their land.

“It gave them a whole new status in their community," Arnold says. "But what it gave them particularly was a degree of legal certainty as to their land rights and it would be the basis then for subsequent investment and improvement in the land.”

About 10,000 Tanzanian farmers have received land titles so far - not that many in an agrarian country of 47 million people. But Arnold says it may be a model for a larger program, and for other countries, as well.