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

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month 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.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid