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Fertilizer: for the full but not the hungry?

22 June 2009
Satemwa Tea Estate, Thyolo, Malawi

Satemwa Tea Estate, Thyolo, Malawi

A handful of today’s posts at African Agriculture discuss the use of fertilizer in Africa. The synopsis of the four posts is that fertilizer is expected to be expensive again next year and people wonder about the costs/benefits of subsidizing fertilizer for poor farmers in Africa. Malawi has a fertilizer subsidy program and, perhaps not coincidentally, also has a bumper harvest again this year (historically, Malawians have suffered a great deal from famine and malnutrition).

The cynic in me wonders how much the Malawian government will continue to subsidize fertilizer amid these incredible prices. Since 2010 is not an election year, and because Bingu will term out by the next election, I don’t expect as large a proportion of the budget will be dedicated to fertilizer subsidies as last year, so I’ll be watching this space. (I’m also in the early stages of working with a co-author on a paper about the politics of the fertilizer subsidy.)

I had a conversation with a retired farmer whilst in rural Missouri about the long-term impact of fertilizer on the soil, trying to learn whether use by rural farmers in Malawi will have a negative impact on land over time. Grandpa Gary couldn’t give me an answer, but said the kind of farming is too different to compare (he characterized US farming as rather corporate, as compared to my characterization of Malawi farming as more subsistence-oriented). As I think one of the aforementioned posts favors, there needs to be a better balance: why not shift our over-use of fertilizer in the US and China to a modest use of fertilizer in Africa? Chris Blattman recently posted about buying American apples from the black market (via UN peacekeepers from China) in Liberia. Rather than overproduce in the US and ship abroad, why not just produce locally with better fertilizer and we in the US can shift our resources/time elsewhere?

The skepticism about using fertilizer in Africa reminds me of Paarlberg‘s recent Harvard University Press book: Starved for Science. Like the criticism of genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, can full-bellied idealists/liberals/activists in the West advocate that those who are hungry in Africa should be kept free/safe from fertilizer? That question probably sounds a lot like what I said about GMOs in Africa — and no, I haven’t received any fellowship money from Monsanto et al. I just wonder if Western activists consider others’ short-term needs in their hope to protect long-term interests (for which we are not already certain modest use of fertilizer will negatively impact).

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