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

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL 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.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid