Synthetic fertilizers have acquired a bad reputation in recent decades
for causing serious ecological damage when farmers use them
excessively. Some activists contend these products have no place on
today's farms. But the low productivity of farms in many of the world's
poorest, hungriest regions highlights what a lack of fertilizer can
A new report in Science magazine says a better balance
needs to be struck in the widely disparate use of fertilizer around the
world. The report notes that while crop nutrient inputs are approaching
an appropriate level in the United States, they are still dangerously
high in China. However, other regions face a different problem.
to co-author Alan Townsend of the University of Colorado, "Not all of
the world is fertilizer rich… you've got parts of the world that still
suffer extensively from malnutrition and hunger, with Africa being the
most notable one."
Taking advantage of organic sources of soil fertility
data Townsend and his colleagues collected show that soil infertility
continues to be a major problem on African farms. That's due, in part,
to the lack of easy access to manufactured fertilizers. But it's also
because some farmers have not known about simpler ways to bring
Africa's nutrient-depleted soils back into productive use.
Gustafson of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says that there are some forms of organic
fertilizers that farmers can use now. He says, "Farmyard manure is a
big one. There are plants that when you incorporate leaves and so on
into the soil increase nitrogen. There are other things you can do with
crop rotation and other things where there's a lot of work going on."
this knowledge among farmers is a major goal of the FAO. But Gustafson
claims this may not be enough. The FAO also wants to improve African
farmers' access to synthetic fertilizer.
Developing the synthetic fertilizer market
"The issue really is
that the cost of applying fertilizer is really high and the market for
it is not very well developed," Gustafson says.
push in the last couple of years has been through some kind of subsidy,
hopefully in a way that is sustainable and also targets people who
would not have used fertilizer otherwise," he maintains.
part of the cost of this commodity is transportation, and the
International Fertilizer Association is trying to bring that cost down.
Morgane Danielou, a spokeswoman for the industry trade group, says one
effort is aimed at making fertilizer more affordable for small-scale,
"Small holders, they cannot buy 25-kilo
bags," Danielou claims. "So we're looking at some new pilot projects on
selling, you know, 1-kilo bags or 2-kilo bags. And that may also help
on the one hand the transportation but also the commercialization of
Farm productivity as an engine for economic growth
soil fertility has implications not only for alleviating hunger in
Africa but also for stimulating economic progress. Gustafson explains
that when fields are unproductive, farmers can't grow their way out of
"The problem is often not so much the, let's say, the
total shortage of food, but the fact that people can't afford it," he
says. "Most of the poverty is among rural people, most of whom are
farmers, and their levels of productivity are really low."
agricultural productivity in order to boost economic development is
precisely what Professor Alan Townsend says he and his co-authors hope
to encourage with their report.
"Development of policies and
approaches that would make chemical fertilizers more affordable and
more available to that part of the world is almost certainly going to
result in an improvement of the human condition," he argues.
Learning from others' mistakes
Townsend concedes there are risks in taking this approach. He points
out that widespread availability of fertilizer in China and the United
States has led to over-use and pollution. Townsend promotes expanded
use of fertilizer in Africa, but he also urges great caution.
you go down that path, you'd want to have an eye on the long run
towards making sure that the same mistakes aren't made that were made
in other parts of the world earlier so you don't have nutrient
overshoot and environmental problems," he says. "But those parts of
Africa are a long, long ways from that problem."
believes that with the appropriate policies and the right mix of
fertilizer products, African farmers may be able to increase their food
production without causing the environmental damages seen on many U.S.
and Chinese farms.