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Monday, 20 April 2009 00:07

Food Security Requires Increased Fertiliser Use

By Wambi Michael

KAMPALA, Mar 6 (IPS) - A mix of organic and inorganic fertilisers, together with good seed could help Africa to replenish depleted soils and to grow more food in the fight against hunger and food insufficiency.

A study by U.S.-based International Center For Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development indicates that fertiliser use in Africa is on average less than ten percent of that in Asia, offering one explanation for why production of of important food crops such as cereals, tubers and legumes has stagnated or declined.

The study, titled "Soil Nutrient mining in Africa," said agricultural production in much of Africa is also hampered by the predominance of fragile ecosystems, low inherited soil fertility and low use of modern inputs such as mineral fertiliser and improved crop varieties.

According to the report, farmers in Africa have traditionally cleared land, grown a few crops then moved on to clear more land leaving the fallow land to regain fertility. But population pressure now forces farmers to grow crop after crop, "mining" or depleting the soil's nutrients while giving nothing back. With little access to fertilisers, the farmers are forced to bring the less fertile soil on marginal land in production.

High cost, poor distribution systems and lack of manufacturing capacity has compounded the problem in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola. Fertiliser consumption in Africa continues to be largely restricted to a few countries, chiefly Egypt, South Africa and Morocco.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that unless the nearly 70 million smallholder families in sub-Saharan Africa apply fertilisers and start practicing sustainable land and water management on their farms within the next decade, they "will seriously jeopardise their long-term food security, productivity and incomes, while environmental degradation will accelerate".

FAO recommended that average fertiliser application rates in sub-Saharan Africa increase up to from a current average of 16 kg per hectare to 23kg/ha within the next decade to prevent loss of nutrients in the soil and resultant low productivity, but few farmers in Africa can afford them.

In the Ugandan capital Kampala, Tony Odonga, a fertiliser merchant, told IPS that "a number of people are not using fertilisers because of there is too much price fluctuations cost. The price has risen so highly because few months a go were selling a bag of fertilizers at forty eight thousand shillings ($25) for a fifty kilo bag but now we are selling at one hundred and twenty five thousand shillings ($65) a bag which is scaring a farmer when you tell the price they just turn and go."

Jimmy Katerega, a farmer from Lake Victoria's Kalangala Island confirmed that "the cost is too high but we need the fertilisers because scientists have told us that our soils in Kalangala lacking three main components nutrients like phosphorous, calcium and magnesium yet they are rich in nitrogen. If we don't use them then we shall not get the expected yields," he said.

Matsiko James, a farmer from Uganda's Kanungu district said, "I use natural fertilisers because the inorganic fertilisers are expensive and also it is not cost effective because you will not recover the cost. If you are using mechanized agriculture where by you are using much land then the inorganic them you will need fertilisers."

But Pedro Sanchez, the Director of tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment, asserted that Ugandan soils have been depleted and need to be replenished if food production is to increase.

"The reason why people say soil is fertile is because they see green. But every thing is green here because in the forests, nutrients are recycled he soils. So indeed it is fertile when you don't take anything out. But when you begin to crop it and take nutrients out then you realize that seventy percent of Ugandan soil is infertile," he said.

In Uganda, farmers have been relying on farm yard manure to add nutrients in the soils but Dr. Bashir Jama Director of Soil Health Program at Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA) said this is not sustainable in the long run with increasing population.

"What happens in Uganda is that the soils are depleted of nutrients. They no longer have that capacity to rely on manure alone. I think it is very unlikely that one could have successful organic farming if you start with nutrient depleted soil."

He said farmers have not been adding back the nutrients into the soil for too long. "It is like a bank account. If you draw the account to zero you will not produce crops."

The use of inorganic fertilisers in Africa has been discouraged by 'organic and environmental groups pushing to access markets in Europe and the United States. In Uganda the National Organic Agricultural Movement in Uganda (NOGAMU) It has a wide network of farmers mobilised to use only organic fertiliser.

NOGAMU Executive Director, Moses Muwanga told IPS that the push for a mix of organic and inorganic fertilisers was aimed at bringing chemical fertilisers in through a back door.

"It will not work this is just another form of marketing inorganic fertilisers. We have been clear on these mineral fertilisers. It will affect our soils, ruin the markets and pollute the lakes and rivers with toxins," he said.

Food and Agricultural Organisation country representative in Uganda, Percy Misika said his agency supports the use of organic fertilisers but is also of the view that "organic alone can not feed six billion people today and nine billion by 2050 without inorganic fertilisers."

Jama said that generally farmers have not been using the fertilisers because of cost but their use could be scaled-up by subsidising them.

"The farmers can not afford the fertilisers because the prices are very high. So fertilisers have to be financed either as smart subsidies like Malawi has done or farmers who can get into credit systems. But fertilisers have to go with good seed.

"What we are advocating for is the wise use of fertilisers whether organic or inorganic. The idea is to be ahead of the game and to be able to produce enough food and to do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable let soil fertility not run down and let us have enough food on the table," he said.


'Bring Back a Culture of Sharing'

Terna Gyuse interviews GATHURU MBURU, coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network

NAIROBI, Mar 6 (IPS) - "Africa has the singular and tragic distinction of being the only place in the world where overall food security and livelihoods are deteriorating," reads the website of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an initiative to boost food security and agricultural productivity on the continent.

A large part of AGRA's programme to fix this consists of the extension of improved seeds, fertiliser and credit to small-scale farmers. Is this approach the right one for Africa?

Critics of this model fear that this model will strengthen commercial farming while doing little for the small-scale farmers that form the backbone of Africa's food production, as well as lead to the loss of precious biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.

Gathuru Mburu, who is also the director of Nairobi's Institute for Culture and Ecology, an NGO which seeks to strengthen traditional knowledge for better environmental and resource management, spoke to IPS from Kenya.

IPS: Has a Green Revolution not already been tried in Africa?

Gathuru Mburu: The Green Revolution is not new to Africa. I think all countries in Africa have had a green revolution in their own way, because we have been using fertiliser, we have been using herbicides and fungicides. And we have also been introduced to many improved varieties of crops in Africa.

IPS: Let's talk about results. What impacts have fertiliser and high-yielding seed had in Africa?

GM: We have seen that it is those who practice commercial farming, like everywhere else in the world, these are the main beneficiaries. They have the money and can afford to have a continuous flow of funds to buy fertilisers and chemical sprays, and to buy even the seeds - because for a Green Revolution to succeed, it must come as a package... and then you need to have political will that supports the implementation of the Green Revolution.

We are seeing that in Africa it has had varying levels of success depending on where you are as a farmer. If you are a commercial farmer, then you gain; if you are a small-scale farmer, you lose.

IPS: We're told the backbone of Africa's food security is made up of small farmers. Why hasn't the Green Revolution benefited small farmers?

In effect what it has done is to disrupt farming systems. It has disrupted [small farmers'] systems and their income. So it hasn't really assisted small-scale farmers because of all the requirements and pre-conditions for the Green Revolution to work. Small farmers cannot afford them.

It needs a continuous flow of income, of money. It requires you to have a continuous supply of improved seeds which small-scale farmers cannot afford to buy because their cash flow is erratic. It is dependent [solely] on the yield that they get from their investment in farming. If you don't get good yields, then your flow of income is severed and in the next planting season you will not get anything because you do not have the money to buy seeds, you do not have the money to buy other chemical inputs.

So for Africa, for small-scale farmers, it hasn't worked. But it is not a new thing that is being brought to Africa. It has been tried here.

IPS: The Green Revolution in Asia is credited with massive increases in agricultural output. What's your assessment of that? Why is that not applicable to Africa?

GM: I think in Asia, what we can say is that it succeeded to the extent that it managed to produce high yields. But it failed in other ways because in order to get the high yields, they had to remove completely the diversity of crops and grow monocultures.

And essentially this is the basic approach of the Green Revolution. It doesn't favour diversity. It promotes monoculture. So in Asia they succeeded in getting very high yields from specific monocultures. But on the other hand, they lost a lot, because their biodiversity, their farmers' seed varieties: all of these were eliminated.

At the moment, what is happening in Asia is that farmers are actually going back, retracing what they have lost in terms of biodiversity. And it is an uphill task because the knowledge of managing that biodiversity is gone. Because the elders who have that knowledge are no longer there. The people who are farming today have grown up with monocultures; there are very few people who can take farmers back in Asia, back to where they came from before the Green Revolution.

An uphill task. Recuperating seeds is not an easy thing. They have to look for them, sometimes they may have to even buy the original seeds from the few people who still have the original varieties. And all this is happening because they lost their indigenous seeds to the Green Revolution, which favours monocultures of improved seeds only.

IPS: Returning to Africa: we know that the majority of smallholder farmers are women. What are the gender implications of the model that's being put forward?

GM: This is actually another trap for women. Over a long period, Africa has been trying to empower women. But this has not really succeeded.

AGRA coming in is actually going to put the last nail in the efforts for empowerment of women in Africa. Reason being AGRA is going through banks, it's giving loans to farmers. And those people who have bank accounts, who have access to loans are men.

The women who do most of the work do not have access to these loans, because they cannot open bank accounts. Some of them may, but these are not the farmers, they may be business women.

But the majority of people who can access these loans, this AGRA money, are men. And they're not the ones who work on the farms. They are just going to the banks, getting money and doing whatever they want with it and the women are still toiling on farms.

This money is not going to assist women, it's going to aggravate the situation of women becuse they're going to continue being slaves on their own farms. They are continuously working, but they're not getting any returns from their work because a lot of these farms are controlled by men.

IPS: You've laid out many problems you see with the Green Revolution approach. But if the future of agriculture in Africa is not with this model, if it is not agribusiness, how are we to address the real problems that face African farmers? There are issues of soil fertility, issues with food security, declining yields: what are the alternatives? How else can Africa's nutritional needs be met?

GM: Well, there are various modes of addressing this. Before the introduction of the Green Revolution, or commercial farming, African people were feeding themselves. Many people argue that Africa had fewer people at that time, but they were feeding themselves. They still had people who had the indigenous knowledge of their food, of their seeds, of their crops.

Basically what Africa needs to do is promote local innovations, especially the farmer varieties that the farmers have the knowledge of.

Then there are so many organisations, both government and non-governmental, that are promoting organic farming, or ecological farming in Africa. But these are not getting a lot of support. And the corporate world is not investing in these ecological farming methods because they may not get the returns they are looking for.

What we need to do in Africa is to promote ecological farming, promote farmer varieties of seeds and even support or pass laws that support local farmers and their indigenous plant breeding innovation.

It has to go down to the people. It cannot be led by the corporations, because the change, the social change we are looking for needs to start with the minds of people in Africa.

When they realise that what they have is the only thing that is going to save them, that's when they will extricate themselves from the trap that they have been put into through making the food chain a corporate affair.

IPS: But the stakes are high... what are some examples of where people farming organically, or going back into their own past for methods and seeds are attaining not just food sufficiency, but a decent livelihood?

There are so many examples in Africa. I spoke earlier about Zimbabwe, where the Green Revolution's techniques were tested. In Zimbabwe there is also a very strong organic movement. It may have been affected by the current political situation.

Here in Kenya we have so many NGOs that are promoting organic agriculture. It is gaining currency because so many people are turning from food grown with chemicals to organically-farmed crops.

And in India, there are so many people who have realised that the way to save the population of India is not going chemical, but going back to the natural ways, the ecological farming systems. And they are reclaiming, they are recuperating the seeds and the culture around the seeds and they are bringing them back [into use] and they are sharing.

We have to bring back that culture. It's not just the seeds but the culture around the seeds. It's the value of sharing - in the corporate world, there is no sharing, but in Africa in our own indigenous cultures, seeds were not sold, they were shared.

And I do not think that there is any corporate in the world that can actually bring meaningful social change. Social change must come from the people. When you're talking about the Green Revolution, this is profit-driven. Because the corporations have their own researchers, they have their own things that they want to make profit from.



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