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February 06, 2012

Inputs subsidy schemes: does easy fertilizer access discourage good soil management?

by Chido Makunike

Malawi can justifiably be very proud of its farming inputs subsidy programme. For several years in a row, it has produced surpluses of the country’s staple crop, maize. Considering the several prior years of maize famine the country experienced, the turn around is a huge achievement.

From the beginning, there have been questions about the cost sustainability of the programme. Last year, the extent of the subsidy scheme had to be scaled back over a diplomatic dispute with and the subsequent reduction of aid by Britain, a major donor. But none of these challenges detracts from Malawi’s success at addressing a key issue.

Good rains fortuitously accompanied the first several years of the subsidy. The 2011/12 farming season is the first one since the subsidy was introduced that the rain season is expected to be below average. It will be interesting to see what new lessons will be learned from the new variable of poor rains.

However, there is already enough known over many decades for some of the adjustments that may need to be made to the subsidy programme to be highlighted.

The benefits of fertilizer are clear. Availability and cost are the key issues limiting its use in Africa. But one of the downsides of ready fertilizer availability and relatively easy affordability is that they encourage laziness with regards to soil management.

Fertilizer’s effects on plant growth are so quick and dramatic that when many farmers know they will definitely have it; there seems little point in natural soil fertility improvement measures. Yet fertilizer use should ideally go hand in hand with other soil management techniques.

Some of the reasons for this fertilizer-caused soil fertility negligence are obvious and understandable. Most small holder farming is a very hard slog for often very little return. For most farmers, it is already back breaking work before you add the additional tasks of maintaining, say, compost. On poor soils where fertilizer is not available, soil supplementation measures may add to the manual drudgery of farming, but the farmer knows s/he simply cannot avoid it if a reasonable yield is to be expected from that poor soil.

Fertilizer, with its quick, direct shot of basic nutrients to the plant, is therefore a very effective, attractive alternative to the harder work of natural soil fertility supplementation. Farmers are well aware that fertilizer cannot replace natural soil fertility. Nevertheless, when fertilizer is available, the reality of their existence makes sole reliance on it by many farmers irresistible because of its ease of application and its immediate, dramatic results.

But a season of poor rainfall like the present one dramatically decreases the usefulness of fertilizer. Fertilizer application must be soon followed by soil-soaking rain or irrigation. If not, the un-dissolved fertilizer will not only be of no use to the plant, if near physically enough to the plant, it may burn it.

Poor rainfall seasons are when the benefits of naturally rich soils are most apparent. Soil with lots of plant matter in it will have many of the basic nutrients even before or without the additional application of fertilizer. Critically, moisture retention is much higher in such soils, which can make all the difference in whether a plant survives until the next rainfall, or wilts and dies before. If and when fertilizer is applied to such naturally rich soil, it is as a fertility boost, rather than as the only means of feeding the plant. Fertilizer used in this way can be stretched out to cover a larger area without sacrificing per hectare yields.

All these well known facts are often ignored in the excitement of widely available fertilizer and the euphoria of ‘bumper harvests.’ Soil fertility caution is thrown to the wind and fertilizer is treated as if it could replace well fed soils, which it cannot.

Fertilizer subsidies are simply too expensive to continue indefinitely. Sooner or later the long term costs of neglecting basic soil fertility will catch up with a country’s agriculture. Good soil management is a process, not a one time event like applying a dose of fertilizer. Unfortunately, attention to soil fertility is usually paid in times of crisis, when compost, manure or mulch cannot be used as an emergency measure for the sudden absence of fertilizer or sufficient rain. Their use needs to be emphasized on an on-going basis, even when fertilizer is readily available.

The poor rains in Malawi and the rest of the region are likely to result in dramatically decreased maize harvests in 2012. But they may also provide another opportunity to remind farmers and governments that regardless of the success of an inputs subsidy, it is dangerous to treat fertilizer as if it could be a substitute for good soil management. Fertilizer use and good soil management must be treated as complementary to each other.

To ignore this in times of good rains, accessible fertilizer and bumper harvests is to simply postpone reckoning with the problems that build up when soil management is ignored. Those problems will become dramatically apparent in times when one or more of the elements needed for fertilizer to produce its results, such as good rain, is missing.

African Agriculture

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