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Huge Global Fertilizer Imbalances Lead to Pollution, Hunger

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 mean.

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.

According 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

The 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.

Daniel 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."

Sharing 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.

"The biggest 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.

A large 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, low-income farmers.

"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 these products."

Farm productivity as an engine for economic growth

Improving 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 poverty.

"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."

Increasing 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

But 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.

"If 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."

Townsend 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.