Agriculture in modern times is getting more and more dependent upon the steady supply of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. There has been much focus on soil nutrients and on the availability, use, economic returns, and environmental impacts, of chemical fertilizers.
“To feed its growing population, Africa must increase its food production by 4% per year for the next 10 years.”<Source: .pdf>
With an ever growing number of mouths to feed, dependence on fertilizers to promote plant growth is the natural way to follow. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, chemical fertilizers are used at very low levels, resulting in the depletion of soil nutrients and associated declines in soil fertility.
On the other end of the spectrum, in the developed world, there is excessive use of fertilizers. Excessive use of fertilizers is rampant in many South Asian countries as well chiefly due to subsidized prices. While to an extent, fertilizers do help increase a farm’s output, its overuse is linked to a range of environmental problems, including nutrient runoff and contamination of groundwater and surface water.
“Use of fertilizers in agricultural farms beyond a limit does not increase the amount of yield. Instead, it increases the amount of N2O emissions,” ~ Amit Garg, faculty IIM-A <Source>
A number of studies argue that chemical fertilizers are highly profitable, albeit at low levels of use. Even though the average returns are high, its use by farmers, however, is constrained by its high cash cost and risky returns. Among other things, fertilizer use can be risky for these farmers for two main reasons.
“First, yields and output prices can vary widely on a year-to-year basis, so farmers fear that in any given year their crop income will not be high enough to cover their fertilizer costs. Second, yields vary widely with the climate: rainfall is highly uncertain; in drought years the crop response to fertilizer can be practically nonexistent, and in fact may be negative if measures are not taken to harvest water.” <Source: .pdf>
Other studies argue that fertilizer use is not, in fact, highly profitable for many farmers, due to high transport and transaction costs and perhaps also due to relatively low physical responses to nutrients. While a number of countries have recently experimented with fertilizer subsidies, they are without any major success. The revival of interest in fertilizer subsidies reflects concerns over the low levels of use in sub-Saharan Africa and the need to increase crop production levels.
Some of the questions that can be addressed in this study are:
What is the evidence on physical rates of return to fertilizer use in the region?
What fertilizer policies are currently in place in different countries in the region? Are fertilizers taxed or subsidized?
How important are transport costs, timeliness of supply, and quality issues in affecting farmers’ decisions about fertilizer use? How do rates of usage differ across crops and production systems?
How significant are the environmental problems associated with fertilizer use and overuse? Are usage levels high enough to create significant problems for water contamination or soil acidification?
Do farmers appear to be using fertilizer efficiently and sustainably?
The complete research report on Improving the Effectiveness, Efficiency and Sustainability of Fertilizer Use (separately for African and South Asian countries) will be published soon and will be made available on www.agripolicyoutreach.org for free download.
The Co-Author and Research Assistant on the project is Khondoker Tanveer Haider, University of Oxford. The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Global Development Network or its Board of Directors.
You can follow Khondoker on Twitter @Khondo_Haider