News / Africa

Fertilizer Subsidy Costs Could Outweigh Benefits

An Indian farmer sprays fertilizer at a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmadabad, India, July 1, 2013.
An Indian farmer sprays fertilizer at a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmadabad, India, July 1, 2013.
Government programs to help farmers use more fertilizer have spread across the African continent over the last decade or so. Advocates say the subsidies are helping lift farmers out of hunger and poverty, but others say politicians are also getting a big boost.

Every year, the government of Malawi distributes coupons for subsidized fertilizer and maize seed. The program helped produce a bigger harvest for low-income farmers like Margaret Macheso in the southern district of Mulanje.

“This has assisted me a lot because I have been harvesting enough maize for the past three years that I don’t face any food shortage situation as was in the past,” Macheso said.

That’s a big deal for one of the poorest countries in the world, and one that had severe food shortages as recently as 2005.

After that crisis, Malawi decided to ramp up its seed-and-fertilizer subsidy program.

Studies show it helped. Farmers receiving fertilizer have seen modest gains in maize production.

Big chunk of the budget

So other countries in sub-Saharan Africa have followed, in a big way. In the early 2000s, there were hardly any programs to subsidize agricultural inputs like seed and fertilizer, says international development professor Thom Jayne at Michigan State University.

“Over the course of the past 10 years, subsidy programs have now scaled up to about $2 billion per year," he said, "and preliminary estimates are that these programs take up roughly 30 percent of agricultural budgets across the continent.”

But at a recent talk in Washington, Jayne said the problem with spending such a large chunk of the agriculture budget on subsidies is that it leaves less money for everything else. He says investments in irrigation, electrification, transportation, farmer education and so forth are also badly needed, but they’re competing for the same limited pot of money.  

“To the extent that the subsidy programs are eating up that budget," Jayne said, "I think that spells trouble.”

Trouble because those other investments could be better at reducing poverty and improving food security than input subsidies.

Better return for the money

Other experts point to South Asia as an example. Food production there increased tremendously in the 1970s, due in part to input subsidies.

But farmer education and rural infrastructure improved at the same time, and now those investments are more valuable, according to the World Bank's Simeon Ehui, an expert on South Asian agricultural development.

“Even if at the beginning, support in fertilizers was quite rewarding," Ehui said, "over the years it has reversed, and support for roads, education, irrigation and so on are providing more return.”

India still subsidizes fertilizer, even though farmers now overuse it, and the chemicals are polluting the water, Ehui says, adding that  politicians, not farmers, need the subsidies to win votes.

Benefit over cost

The same is true in Africa, according to Michigan State's Jayne. Handing out coupons for subsidized fertilizer may not be the best way to end hunger and poverty but, "it’s one that’s visible. It’s one where African leaders can point to it and say, ‘We’re doing tangible things here,’” Jayne said.

Economists note that farm subsidies have proven notoriously hard to cut from Africa to India to the United States. But Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture spokeswoman says at this point, the benefits of the program for her country are more important than the substantial costs.

“We know that it is draining resources," said Sara Tione. "But we cannot talk of exit strategies until Malawians are self-sufficient and food secure.”

And on that score, experts say, Malawi, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, have a ways to go.

You May Like

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies 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.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid