News / Africa

Bean Crops May Cut Fertilizer Use, Subsidy Costs

But critics argue poor farmers need more fertilizer, not less

Pigeon peas can help reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer.
Pigeon peas can help reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer.

Multimedia

Audio

A new study finds that governments can reduce the amount they spend on fertilizer subsidies - and free up resources for health, education or other priorities - by encouraging farmers to alternate maize with certain bean crops.

Scientists in the chronically-malnourished African nation of Malawi developed farming methods that produce the same yields using just half the fertilizer - a big potential saving for the Malawi government, and a potential model for other developing-countries.

But critics say poor farmers would do better right now using more synthetic fertilizer, not less.

In recent years, Malawi has taken major steps to increase its faltering food production by making synthetic fertilizer and high-yielding maize seed available to farmers at a steep discount. Nationwide, the program has been credited with increasing maize production by up to 30 percent.

High costs

But the costs of the project consume about one-sixth of Malawi's national budget.

"There's a lot of concern by the Malawi government in what is the sustainability of this," says Michigan State University crop scientist Sieg Snapp, "because if you invest in fertilizer, then there is less ability to invest in education and roads, other things. Obviously, there are tradeoffs."

Snapp and her colleagues wanted to see if farmers and governments could get more value from their fertilizer investments by adding bean crops known as legumes to the planting schedule.

Farmers have long known that legumes naturally fertilize the soil with the nitrogen they produce. But they have also known that legumes typically don't provide the kind of productivity boost possible with synthetic fertilizer.

The power of pigeon pea

Snapp's research focused on a different kind of legumes: shrubby legumes like pigeon pea and mucuna that mature more slowly than other legumes. That means they spend more time in the ground producing nitrogen fertilizer. And the ground stays covered with living plants for longer -- another benefit for the soil.

So when farmers grow maize the next year and add the normal amount of synthetic fertilizer, the soil is rich and ready. In the study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Snapp says the maize-and-shrubby-legume rotation produced as much grain as growing maize with synthetic fertilizers both years.

"We're producing the same amount of grain," she says, "but...at half the amount of fertilizer."

Reliably profitable

Spending less on fertilizer helped make the shrubby legume rotation three to four times more profitable, which Snapp says is critical if farmers are going to change their practices.

Plus, she adds, yields from the shrubby legume rotation were more reliable year after year.

"A lot of people just focus on the production," she says. "But if it isn't stable, it isn't every year you can count on that, that puts your country at risk."

Snapp says the shrubby legume rotation can reduce the risk of food shortages at lower cost -- to farmers and national governments -- than expensive synthetic fertilizers.

Synthetics more powerful

Glenn Denning is a specialist in agriculture and food security at Columbia University's Earth Institute. He agrees that legumes serve important functions improving the soil and providing a source of protein.

"But I don't think this is the right time to de-emphasize fertilizer use in Malawi, or anywhere else in Africa, for that matter," he says.

Denning says even with the subsidy-driven increase in fertilizer, maize yields in Malawi are still far below what they could be. And he says farmers could apply twice the fertilizer used in Snapp's study and increase their yields more than they could with legumes.

That would free up land for other crops. "And in that way," he adds, "small-scale farmers, instead of devoting their whole land area to maize simply so they've got enough to survive on, they could devote half or two-thirds of their land to maize and the rest they could put into other crops, including legumes."

Complement, not replace

Denning notes that pigeon peas are an important part of the cropping system in a major project he works on in Malawi. He says they do have potential in the government's subsidy program.

"I think you could cut your costs in some places where these legumes will really make a difference." But, he adds, "I think the jury would still be out as to how widespread you could effectively introduce those legume rotation systems at this time."

Current pigeon pea varieties do not grow well in many parts of the country, he says.

Denning expects legumes will play a bigger role in fertilizer subsidy programs. But he says they should complement, not replace, synthetic fertilizers.

You May Like

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine May Be in Use by Jan.

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid