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May 26, 2010

Can fertilizer subsidies grow Africa's Green Revolution?

by Yasmine Ryan

Earth-shaking change doesn’t come from good ideas alone. Just as important are the people who have the power and courage to rise above the drone of skepticism to transform words into action. This is what Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika did when he defied the advice of some of the world’s most powerful institutions in a bid to save his country from famine after famine.

A group of scientists had been arguing that funding fertilizer was crucial to elusive food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Until Mutharika came to power, however, no one was willing to turn their words into policy.

Professor Pedro Sánchez of the Columbia University’s Earth Institute was one of the scientists Mutharika chose to heed despite resistance from most of Malawi’s international donors.

“We had a meeting with the newly elected president, Bingu wa Mutharika," Sánchez recalled in an interview with TakePart. "The guy told several of us, ‘Hey, I didn’t get elected to be a beggar nation, and right now we’re begging for about 45 percent of our food. Do you have any suggestions?’

“We said, 'Yes, sir. Subsidize fertilizers and hybridized seeds.' And he did it.”

Within two years, Malawi went from famine to food exportation. Now the fertilizer subsidies have caught on among neighboring countries—10 are testing similar policies, including Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia. Faced with the evidence of success, USAID, the World Bank, and many European donors are putting their support behind subsidy programs.

“The dogma was that you don’t subsidize African farmers, even though we subsidize American, European and Japanese farmers to the tune of 1 billion U.S. dollars a day,” Professor Sánchez says. “Things have changed. It was basically the political will from one president.”

Based on the "Malawi miracle" and projects in other parts of the region, Sánchez, who has also served as co-chair of the U.N. Millennium Project Hunger Task Force, penned an article titled "Tripling crop yields in tropical Africa" in this month’s edition of Nature Geoscience.

Fertilizers and hybrid seeds, he writes, offer a means of wiping out hunger in tropical Africa. A Green Revolution, like the one that revolutionized agriculture in India, is also possible in Africa, he writes. What is needed is to nourish soils stripped bare of nutrients from decades of farming without fertilizer and manure.

Success, he stresses, depends on a country’s relative stability, education to empower farmers and adequate infrastructure. Enriched soil could help protect crops from climate change, too.

Synthetic fertilizers may well increase food production, but over-enthusiastic use can have a significant impact on land and waterways. Still, the soil scientist doesn’t advise exclusively organic agriculture for Africa.

“Organic doesn’t work when the soils are depleted of nutrients,” he explains. “It works when the soils are enriched with nutrients from many decades of inorganic fertilization.”

Sánchez does support a balance between synthetic and organic fertilizers. Rather than using a blanket approach, nutrients should be adapted to each field.

Nitrogen-fixing trees are ideal for many parts of Africa, but would need governmental support to truly grow.

“The science [on the trees] is very clear, but the adoption is very limited because of a lack of financial incentives,” he says.

A major criticism of the Malawi model is that it encourages farmers to turn to a single staple crop (and yes, it's corn, in case you were wondering...). Horticulturist Linda Larish notes that the traditional Malawian staple, a taro-like plant called manioc, has largely been abandoned by farmers switching to imported hybrid corn.

“Even though they are self-sufficient and can grow their own food, they are at the mercy of the seed and fertilizer companies,” Larish says.

Not by coincidence, Malawi’s policies gave Monsanto a foothold for its hybrid maize in sub-Saharan Africa. Is it philanthropy, PR, or simply shrewd business?

Some critics suggest that African governments just don’t have the resources to support subsidies. Sánchez counters that Malawi's program has already lasted five years. He points to a study from the Chicago Council for Global Affairs, which found that food aid was six times more expensive than subsidies.

The idea has certainly caught the attention of the Obama administration. A few years ago, 90 percent of USAID’s food aid to Africa was in the form of food imports, while only 10 percent was offered as agricultural development. Now, Sánchez says, the breakdown is half and half. He hopes the trend will continue to gain traction.

“Things look good for a major scale-up,” Sánchez says.

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