Fertilizer

I’m not exactly a full-blown supporter of organic farming, but I certainly have strong sympathies for it, as do many of my close friends. I’ve been involved in the organic urban agriculture movement in Ottawa, I’ve done a lot of reading, I’ve gone out of my way to buy organic food, but always, in the back of my mind, is the often repeated idea: as it stands right now, without chemical fertilizer the world probably can’t feed itself.

Now flash back to a week ago. After spending 6 days in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) I took the two hour bus trip to visit fellow EWB OVS Garrett Schmidt in Ntchisi District for a week. While there, I saw a maize (corn) field in Malawi for the first time. My reaction: “holy crap!!!”.

FieldVisit_March12_2009 001Garrett, all 6’5” of him, standing in a maize field. (also, randomly, note the symmetry with my profile picture).

The stalks of maize were huge. Most had at least two, sometimes three ears on them, all of commercial size. Based on these observations, and talking to people, it looks like many Malawians are set for a bumper crop this year.

In Zambia I didn’t once see a stalk of maize that was taller than me. I also didn’t see a single one with multiple cobs. The maize I did help harvest was underdeveloped, with cobs that fit easily into the palm of my hand. Granted I arrived in Zambia at the end of the farming season, when much of the better maize had probably already been harvested, but I still feel the maize I’m seeing now on smallholder farms in Malawi is a cut above.

100_2073 An example of the maize I helped harvest in Zambia.

So, what is the magical reason behind Malawi’s bumper crop. The first ingredient is good rains. In 2007 when I was in Zambia there were heavy floods during the rainy season, stunting maize growth. This year in Malawi, according to several people I’ve talked to, the rains were very good. However, rains don’t tell the whole story. Another big part of Malawi’s success is, as the title of this post suggests: fertilizer.

In 2005, after a terrible maize harvest that left many Malawians reliant on international food aid to survive, the country introduced a fertilizer subsidy program, attempting to target the poorest farmers with coupons for the purchase of heavily discounted fertilizer.

During the next two years, the program worked wonders. Reports indicate that almost half of Malawian families gained access to subsidized fertilizer through the program. Helped by good rains, on a macro-level Malawi became a surplus-food producer, selling thousands of tonnes of maize to surrounding countries and the World Food Programme. This year it looks like that trend is set to continue.

FieldVisit_March12_2009 022Maize fields in Ntchisi. Both fields were planted at the same time. The one in the foreground was planted without fertilizer, the one in the background was planted with fertilizer. Note the difference.

Although there are many critics of the fertilizer subsidy program (cue Google searching for readers interested in exploring the issue further), Malawian farmers that I have talked to are very happy with it. Having enough food is also an essential foundational element of development. Learning, schooling, entrepreneurship, innovation; all of these things are very hard to do on an empty stomach.

That being said, I still remain a little uncomfortable with the program. Chemical fertilizer is a hydrocarbon derivative. We are inevitably approaching a peak oil crisis, likely within the next half century. When oil supply begins to diminish and prices skyrocket (assuming we haven’t found a better energy source), fertilizer prices will probably skyrocket too.

Making the switch to productive organic farming takes years of hard work, but a fertilizer price spike can happen in minutes. Is this program, by making investments in natural soil fertility (through better composting, crop rotation, etc.) unnecessary, setting farmers up for an even greater food production collapse in the future? Taking a longer term view, shouldn’t our number one priority be to move away from fertilizer use, before price shocks make chemical agriculture impossible, especially for the poor?

I don’t have the answer. What I do know, from my time working with the Organic Producers and Processors Association of Zambia, and from talking to many farmers, is that best-practice organic farming is hard work, and many farming families are already strained with the work-load of traditional approaches. The thought of being able to put something extra in the ground that increases yields, without demanding extra labour, is almost too good to pass up.

Full stomachs and economic growth can set the stage for further innovation. It is possible that this program can grant farmers the prosperity and stability needed to move towards more sustainable agriculture. In my mind, however, two significant questions remain: Will it happen? And is there enough time?

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(Note: This post was not meant to be a detailed research effort on the Malawi fertilizer subsidy program, just a discussion of some things I’ve been seeing and questions I have. Most of the information came from this article, and conversations I’ve had with Malawians. More research by interested blog-readers is highly encouraged, and please feel free to post thoughts, ideas, or research as comments to this post.)

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3 comments:

  1. Owen! Thanks for sharing the news about the bumper crop. People were seriously worried last year that this year would be worse, but I'm glad to hear the opposite is true.

    Besides the obvious peak oil issue and the need to import much of their fertilizer, it is also incredibly expensive. It's obvious that the subsidy program has been not only beneficial, but necessary. Several farmers I asked said the price ranged from MK7000-9000, depending on the quality of fertilizer, up from MK3000 the year before. I'd be interested to find out how much it costs this year, with the price of crude oil down so significantly. I can imagine that the fertilizer price has not decreased concurrently.

    The thing about organic farming is that it is primarily considered somewhat of a luxury good. In Malawi, my experience is that people want to buy food at a decent price, and are not so concerned with the organic-ness of it. Farmers, on the production end, want to increase their yields and see fertilizer as this golden stepping stone to doing so. Fertilizer is definitely useful, no doubt, but also has its environmental impacts that people may or may not be aware of (I talked to both). I did see one company that was making - or trying to at least - nitrogen fertilizer from fish from the lake. If you have time, could you look into that some more? It seems like a potential opportunity that utilizes Malawi's natural resources, and, as long as it is done sustainably, could have an economic benefit as well. There is the argument that we shouldn't use food (i.e. fish) to make fertilizer to make more food, but perhaps there are studies that show the caloric benefit of fish vs. fish-fertilized crops.....

    Anyways, that was a long ramble. I hope you're getting used to Malawi a bit. Lilongwe is a bit overwhelming at times. Did you meet Coconut by any chance? (the rastafarian who hangs around Lilongwe and makes a point to meet every westerner).

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  2. Owen!

    Very interesting post. You probably remember that I have worked as a corn picker for over 6 years of my life, when I was young, and let me tell you, our crops were never as tall as that! Incredible.

    The biggest stalk was a little over six feet and the farm I was on did use fertilizer. Now the farm had up and down years with weather but never did the fertilizer kick in like your pictures. One year, we used a system of covering the seeds with plastic in order to increase the heat for the stalk to grow quicker. The stalk was to grow through small holes and thus produce a faster grown crop (apparently corn needs sun/ heat). Anyways, the reason why I share this that out of all the new approaches my employer tried over the years, his crop never was boosted to the heights your crop has shown in Malawi- fertilizer included. Hope things are going well. I am currently getting busy catching up on your blog. :)

    Cheers,
    Adam Style

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  3. Come on dude ,how can you not be a fan of organic fertilizing? dude it's the best fertilizer for rapidly increasing productivity and yield over time.It might do the job slow,but over time your corn fields are heavily populated.I like your post and picture man.Check out my site,by viewing my profile.Peace!

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