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

HRW: Egypt's Trial of Morsi ‘Badly Flawed’

Human Rights Watch says former Egypt leader's detention without charge for more than three weeks after his removal from office violated Egyptian law; government rejects criticism More

Photogallery Lancet Report Calls for Major Investment in Surgery

In its report published by The Lancet, panel of experts says people are dying from conditions easily treated in the operating room such as hernia, appendicitis, obstructed labor, and serious fractures More

Music Industry Under Sway of Digital Revolution

Millions of people in every corner of the Earth now can enjoy a vast variety and quantity of music in a way that has never before been possible 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.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs