Monday, December 3, 2007

Ending famine: a little more complicated

This article by Celia Dugger on how fertilizers subsidies to Malawi farmers helped boost cereal yields to the extent that Malawi appears to be about to break free from famine and to become independent from food aid was sent to me by Dragon Horse, Marcy and Leila. Leila also sent me a link to a blog by Brad DeLong, a professor of economics at Berkeley where the article is thoroughly discussed.

I have a few comments:

This is a very interesting departure from the IMF-WB-WTO "no agricultural subsidies" rule imposed on developing nations (at the same time when the euroamerican world feeds money to its cows and makes cotton from dollar bills).

There is no doubt that fertilizers are important. If they are organic, that's better, but it is extremely difficult (but not impossible) to create a large scale fully integrated system. I work in organic farming and in its promotion, but I know, as a trained soil scientist, that soil impoverishment from years of intensive cultivation based on nutrients mining is a reality, and that there are times when mineral fertilizers are needed. One example is the use of powdered rock phosphate in rangeland rehabilitation. There are problems with the whole economic chain of mineral fertilizers starting with the energy needed to produce and transport them, all the way to the ease with which they can pollute soil and ground water and degrade soils further by masking temporarily the impacts of soil erosion and loss of organic matter. Nevertheless, there are situations where they are important, as a temporary boost in degraded lands, where organic manuring is not possible (it has its own shortcomings, like availability, transport, incorporation).

i have been working in agricultural extension for 15 years, and I can vouch for the fact that farmers would much rather receive a couple of bags of free fertilizers than the visit of an extension agent. Whether this is the correct approach is arguable, and i for one think that the level of technology and knowledge can greatly be improved through farm extension, with a corresponding improvement in yields.

Moreover, responsiveness to fertilizers, especially mineral fertilizers is predicated on the availability of responsive seeds and on water (either adequate rainfall, or, as is the case in the Middle East, irrigation water). In fact it is water that is the most limiting factor to plant growth in arid and semi arid lands, like the Middle East, rather than soil nutrients (they come a close second), and irrigation is often needed. But irrigation is problematic: you need infrastructural investments to deliver it where it is needed, it is often poorly managed and results in salinization as in the Indus basin or in California or in the Euphrates plain. Water is also often mined from deep aquifers at great environmental and fuel costs. This is why it is true that this specific case (and as much as I hate to grant him that), the US ambassador might have been right: “The plain fact is that Malawi got lucky last year,” he said. “They got fertilizer out while it was needed. The lucky part was that they got the rains.”

I'm also wondering about the seeds package that's eventually going to accompany fertilizers. Corn is not native to Malawi, it's an american crop (i'm assuming it is corn, Zea mais, not sorghum as in east africa). Most of the commercial corn is now GMO. Is it going to be part of the package?

This is where it is important to use this success to catalyze a shift in the way farming is practiced. The long term solution is to use the subsidies to support a policy of integrated, diversified farming on the small landholdings. This is essential in order to transform the whole farming system into a more sustainable version, that is more apt to use lower inputs. For example, soil organic matter replenishment will help conserving soil water and reduce erosion, and reduce fertilizers need. Diversification will also mean less crop failures, lower risks, and the availability of animal by-products. Most of this is usually practiced in subsistence agriculture, but the challenge is to modernize it in order to reach a commercial size and create surplus. Apparently, this is possible and the current Ethiopian experience on institutionalizing organic farming is one to be watched.

Another question needs to be posed: does a bumper crop in a country automatically means the end of famine? I was watching a documentary on ARTE a couple of days ago about the famine in Niger in 2005. Apparently the southern region of Niger, which is the granary of the country, had enough crop (millet) to feed everybody. But crops were also below expectation in neighbouring Nigeria. So traders from Niger, who hold growers in virtual bondage through debts, preferred to sell the millet across the borders than locally. If these issues of "free" trade and "free" market are not controlled then famines will happen (as they usually do) because people are poor, not because there is not enough food, no matter how much fertilizer is distributed.

On this issue, my brother, who works for commodities traders in Ghana, Togo and Benin tells me that a major crash is imminent: rice prices have increased (although less than wheat and corn) and they are expected to continue to do so. This is the main staple in the region, and imported rice has replaced traditional foods such as taro a long time ago. He promised to write something a bit more in depth about this, because he said something about losing millions of dollars in "futures".


Dragon Horse said...

Thanks for linking to my site:

You know far more about this than me, so I have some questions...

"The long term solution is to use the subsidies to support a policy of integrated, diversified farming on the small landholdings."

So you are talking about crop rotation?

"availability of animal by-products"

What is this? Can you give an example.

You brought up a good point about the situation in Niger. I never thought about things like that. Just because people are starving does not mean (in a free market) someone has to sell or provide food to them.

Bedouina said...

I don't know much about this either, but I interpreted "availability of animal by-products" to mean - access to dung: cows, chickens, goats, whatever domestic animals.

Elsewhere in comments Rami explained why the sustainable organic option (including use of dung) is not immediately helpful in a place like Malawi - the soil is so depleted, it does need fertilizer; one assumes these are petroleum-based? Or just mined from wherever and brought in?

I did wonder about access to dung, however - if folks are that poor, are they using dung for fuel? My father said this was done when he was a child in Lebanon. Dried cow dung patties were burned in a clay fire ring to cook food (presumably in a pot). So if dung is burned for fuel, there's not much left for fertilizer, right?

Interesting about corn replacing taro. Well, interesting is not the word. Maddening is more like it. Not at all surprising, but maddening all the same.

Bedouina said...

I keep directing you to the blog Casaubon's Book. She is a peak-oil activist who has been warning us for some time that there's going to famine all around. She lives in rural NY State on 27 acres, farms, sells produce and bread to the neighbors, and stockpiles huge quantities of food, clothing, old quilts, tools etc., expecting a Peak Oil Apocalypse.

She really does seem to understand her agricultural issues, however, and recently published posts on best foods to grow in your back yard to prevent starvation. She likes root vegetables and cabbage.

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Rami Zurayk said...

Dragon Horse: Integrated farming usually refers to having more than one type of farming on a farm. It could be: wheat, vetch, green beans, vegetable plots, fruit trees, and livestock including poultry and bees. The hay from the cereals and the beans and the vetch feed the animals, which provide manure to fertilize the plots. vetch is rotated to enrich the soil. Diversification implies having a large number of species and varieties to ensure production across seasons, and preserve biodiversity.

By animal by-products I meant not only manure, but also milk and meat. If you're keeping the animals to produce manure, then the meat is a by-product. It usually works the other way around, but this is not necessarily the way it should, because it pushes the intensification of animal production, which requires imported feed.

Fertilizers come in different forms from different origins. Nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from N in the air, but this requires high temperature and pressure. phosphorus is mined and then reacted with acid to make P fertilizers. Potassium is mined and purified. Yes, using dung for fuel will create a competitive use for the manure which should go to fertilize soils after composting. This is a very common problem, and a cause of soil empoverishment.