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Smallholders’ Access to Fertilizers in Africa – A Critical Rejoinder

The following was written by Peter Gubbels, Groundswell’s Director of Action Learning and Advocacy in West Africa. Peter is based in Ghana and is part of the Community of Practice on Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), an international group hosted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that is seeking ways to help small scale farmers adapt to climate change. A message was recently posted by Morgane Danielou, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the International Fertilizer Industry Association. The core message was  “increased chemical fertilizer use is the single best technical fix for CSA in terms of mitigation, adaptation, sustainability and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.”

The assertion of the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) addresses a highly contentious subject with many alternative views. But first, one has to to congratulate Morgane and others in the fertilizer industry for their very effective communications and PR strategy. The global fertilizer industry has been very successful in promoting its interests with African leaders. The narrative often used is that the main reason for Africa’s low crop yields is because there is a “fertilizer crisis”, reflected by Africa having some of the lowest rates of per capita fertilizer use of any region.

This is indeed a compelling narrative, has some validity, and it has persuaded quite a few African countries to promote chemical fertilizer through massive subsidies. After all, who can be against fertilizer when it is being promoted as the main way to prevent hunger, and feed an increasing global population?

Yet, the idea that more chemical fertilizer will produce higher yields, and sustainable production over the long term is far too simplistic. One could even say it is a bit “misleading”.

I very much contest the IFA’s core message that chemical fertilizer use helps with adaptation to climate change in Africa. My experience, in over 20 years of field work, is that fertilizer used by small scale farmers greatly increases risk, particularly in drought prone areas, where a bag of fertilizer costs as much as a bag of maize. In my experience, small scale farmers who depend heavily on subsidized chemical fertilizers are more vulnerable to climate change, not less.

A recent report by the Association for AgriCulture and Ecology (AGRECOL) highlights the various adverse effects of chemical fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa by reviewing data from various peer-reviewed studies on the economic, agronomic, and ecological dimensions of chemical fertilizer use across six countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

First, AGRECOL notes that quite a few African countries (Malawi, Ghana, Burkina Faso are examples) are now using 40 to 70 percent of their entire agricultural budget for “smart subsidies” to buy and distribute fertilizer. There is very little funding left for agricultural research (of agroecological alternatives, such as green manures, or agroforestry, to providing organic nitrogen, for example). There is also little funding left foragricultural extension services, or for rural infrastructure (roads, markets), and for researching other ways to help vulnerable farm families adapt to climate change.

Aside from this, there is also a growing body of literature and evidence that indicates a very low cost-benefit for fertilizer use, even with subsidies. There is also data showing long term negative environmental effects of chemical fertilizer use on soil health, as well as contributing to climate change.

It is important to note that AGRECOL perspectives are based on science. It does not advocate against all use of fertilizer. Instead, it argues that fertilizer should be a complement to other methods of integrated soil fertility management, rather be massively promoted as the main focus. So, the study addresses issues about the appropriate use of mineral fertilizer for small scale, resource poor farmers in Africa.  The study indicates that  because of the nature of soils in the tropics and subtropics, there are major challenges to including chemical fertilizers into a comprehensive soil management strategy. The IFA publicity campaign hints at this in its PR messages, but the AGRECOL report greatly expands on what these challenges are (for those who are interested in reviewing the scientific – not ideological-oriented – data on fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa, please read the study by AGRECOL in full. It is well written and easy to read).

For those who may not have time to read the full study, here are some of the key findings on the agronomic, economic, and ecological effects and drawbacks of chemical fertilizer use that CSA must take into account:

  • The soil’s capacity to absorb nutrients and to release them whenever needed for plant growth depends on various soil properties. The claim that mineral fertilizer is necessary to even out nutrient balances in the soil ignores a large part of the picture. The nutrients issue is highly complex and cannot be restricted to balancing withdrawal and supply as the discussions of mineral fertilizers repeatedly imply.  To raise yields, the capacity of the soil to store nutrients, and release them when necessary is highly critical. This cannot be achieved by using mineral fertilizers. 
  • The negative ecological consequences of mineral fertilizers, particularly of urea and nitrogen fertilizers are increasing. It reduces soil humus, biodiversity, causes soil acidification over time, and reduces uptake of phosphates by crops.
  • In addition to acidifying the soil, chemical nitrogen fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a gas that is 310 times more detrimental to the climate as CO2. (There are also major emissions in the production of chemical nitrogen fertilizers). Overall, overuse of synthetic nitrogen undermines core fundamental principles of sustainable agricultural production, and over the long term jeopardizes future food security.
  • Mineral fertilizer subsidies for smallholders have again become popular in Africa. Current fertilizer “smart subsidies” programmes as in Malawi, show that food production can be increased significantly, but they fail to improve the soil fertility in the long term. Subsidies have only a short-term effect. They do not result in long term sustainable food security. Nor are they often profitable for the national economy. Finally, the studies show that the trend is to benefit better off farmers who would ordinarily have bought fertilizer anyway. 
  • The economic efficiency of mineral fertilizers has fallen dramatically, because the price of fertilizer has risen much faster than that of food. In Africa, transportation and other transaction costs remain very high. More importantly, for many small holders, the level of soil fertility is so low that mineral fertilizers have diminished effect, and pay minimal economic dividends. Often fertilizer subsidy “exit strategies” do not work. This puts the whole issue of “sustainability” of fertilizer use into serious question as a long term solution.
  • Studies of mineral fertilizer use in six countries (including Ghana’s fertilizer subsidy programme, which takes 47% of the entire national budget for agriculture) shows negative ecological effects and low economic efficiency. Research showed significant problems, in terms of reaching the poorer small scale farmers, failing to raise soil fertility, and very low economic efficiency (cost benefit ratios).  Annual costs of subsidies were rocketing while soil fertility continued to decline, and fertilizer costs were rising.
  • Fertilizer subsidy programmes, even those using new subsidization concepts, have become a burden on national budgets, taking up to 70% of funding assigned to agriculture in some African countries. Such subsidies divert resources away from other much more needed public support for agricultural development. 
  • The strong promotion and focus on mineral fertilizers as a single technical fix has reduced the priority given to researching measures that raise the soil organic matter and organic forms of nitrogen in various agroecological areas. Collectively these practices fall under “sustainable land management” and integrated soil fertility management. Equally important are soil and water conservation, strengthening the links between crop and animal husbandry (in-door housing of animals and improved feeding with forage crops), simultaneous or intensive fallowing, and agroforestry.
  • While organic manures can help restore nutrient cycles, they cannot meet sizeable nutrient requirements alone, particularly where soil has been mined for many years by harvesting and erosion. Unless nutrients can be added externally, more intensive production is unlikely. For this reason, it is not possible to forego the use of mineral fertilizers entirely.
  • A fundamental shift is required. Mineral fertilizer should be treated as a supplement to a comprehensive soil fertility strategy (rather than the other way which is used currently: fertilizer is the core strategy and organic manure is used as the supplement). 
  • Use of synthetic nitrogen, particularly acidifying fertilizers such as urea, ammonium nitrate, and ammonium sulphate should be dispensed of completely, and other nutrients must be integrated into a comprehensive soil fertility strategy.
  • The innovations to make mineral fertilization more economically viable and ecologically compatible requires: rethinking the phosphorus supply, moving from synthetic to organic nitrogen, and taking action against soil acidification. 

The AGRECOL study also warns that with major investments in large scale industrial style agricultural production (and mono-cropping) will generate the same negative effects as elsewhere where it is already being applied; this approach is a major cause of lower soil fertility and rising soil degradation worldwide. The improper and disproportionate use of chemical fertilizers is one of the drivers of this trend.

In summary, this review of chemical fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa strongly indicates developing scenarios for the transition away from using mineral fertilizers, particularly nitrogen, (as a short-term consumption item), and towards a long-term investment in soil fertility. The challenge lies in using mineral fertilizers in a way that is harmless for the soil and the environment and allows nutrients to remain within the system.

The IFA’s campaign does refer to “integrated soil fertility management” and mentions training farmers on proper use of chemical fertilizer. It agrees there should be a balance with organic nutrients. But the reality – from what I see throughout West Africa at least – is that despite such rhetoric, fertilizer companies like YARA and other large agribusinesses are using their enormous lobbying power, finances, and political clout to convince African governments to massively subsidize chemical fertilizer. Such subsidies benefit the profits of the large fertilizer companies, since they sell more. So, it is clearly in their corporate interests to use their influence in this way.

The IFA advocates promoting “private public partnerships” but mostly this means governments using public funds for subsidies and getting fertilizer more widely distributed. But a realistic and objective analysis shows that aside the IFA’s profits, such subsidies benefit mostly the better off farmers in the areas with richer soils and more abundant rainfall. The fertilizer is often used mostly for export crops like cotton. And subsidies have the effect driving out and marginalizing agroecological alternatives, for which small scale farmers do not receive any government subsidies or extension support at all.

Agriculture faces the challenge of combining intensive production with sustainability. For small holder farmers, this is a big challenge. For poorer farmers, they must be empowered to invest in a comprehensive approach and investment in raising soil fertility. The impact of the IFA campaign is to further marginalize small scale farmers growing millet, sorghum, and cowpeas in less favored, ecologically fragile, and risk prone areas in the Sahel, (including northern Ghana, northern Nigeria) and other of Africa’s drylands. 

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