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Fertiliser subsidies - how farmers pay the price

MONLAR Campaign for People’s Solutions to Food Crisis

It’s not just the government that pays a high price for fertiliser subsidies. In the long run, farmers too pay dearly when these external chemical inputs destroy soil fertility and pollute the water, leading to a host of diseases. Adopting farming methods that improve natural soil fertility can help save money and produce environmental and health benefits as well.

There is an urgent need for some serious rethinking on chemical fertilisers, their price and the government’s approach to the issue. It is very unlikely that the government will continue to subsidise fertiliser for very long. Already it is apparent that the government wants to cut down on the subsidy, but is "marking time" for political reasons. It is only a matter of time before it becomes necessary for the government to cut down on the subsidy and it will do so when the time is right (maybe after the series of Provincial Council elections).

Prices of fertiliser and other agrochemicals are bound to keep increasing, since they are all made out of fossil fuel, the price of which is increasing continually. These have to be imported at very high international prices. The government also says that the fertiliser subsidy is seen not as a subsidy but as "an investment" to keep domestic rice production high.

It is a great tragedy that governments and most of the agricultural experts and advisors today do not see that the only workable solution to this problem is to adopt a comprehensive approach of improving natural fertility of the soil, while reducing dependence on expensive and destructive external inputs such as chemical fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides, and also fuel-dependent machinery.  It is very easy and simple to understand that soil fertility happens naturally through a process of decay of organic matter carried out by the microbes and earthworms etc. It is not necessary to convert fossil fuel, that takes hundreds of thousands of years to form, into fertiliser which is imported at prohibitive costs, particularly in a country where this natural process takes place so easily and efficiently. 

Even when the government recognises that dependence on chemical fertiliser is impossible, the measures adopted or proposed are half-hearted half measures.  For instance the government instructed farmers to use straw as part replacement of chemical fertiliser.  Earlier there was a proposal to get farmers to produce organic fertiliser using straw which was to be sold to traders and this fertiliser was to be purchased by the farmers from traders, who would keep a high profit margin for themselves. Now there are proposals again to promote centralised production of organic fertiliser and the government is planning to set up centres specialising in production of organic fertiliser. It is very easy to see that improvement of soil fertility can best be done by the farmers in their own fields.

It needs to be recognised that the most efficient approach is to adopt methods of farming that will improve natural soil fertility.  Replacing chemical fertiliser with equivalent quantities of organic fertiliser is not the best approach and it is also not scientific. Adding organic fertiliser in place of chemical fertiliser is not the same as improving natural fertility of the soil. Many scientists have made serious blunders trying to calculate the quantity of organic fertiliser (such as straw that needs to be added to get an equivalent quantity of Urea.) It was not recognised that much of the urea when added as an external chemical input gets wasted, evaporated or washed away causing tremendous pollution of water and soil leading to a whole lot of new diseases such as kidney failure. Natural fertility improvement does not result in such wastage and losses.  The benefits of improving natural fertility of the soil by improving the humus content can not be obtained by adding any external fertiliser. 

Let us make a simple calculation.  A bag of 50 Kg of chemical fertiliser now costs Rs. 6,000.  For one acre of paddy you need to add three such bags for one season of farming. When fertiliser is given at Rs. 350 /bag the loss to the government is Rs. 5,650 x 3 = Rs.16,950.  With this amount of money one could easily buy a cow of an indigenous variety. Such a cow can give about one or two litres of milk and about 8 -15  Kgs of cow dung and cow urine.  Such animals do not need expensive cattle feed and expensive medicines. The grass that grows in plenty and other leaves that can be easily grown or obtained from the surroundings could feed such an animal at very little cost. The cow / bull gives fertiliser and animal power and cow gives some milk in addition.

This added fertility of the soil is a continuous process as long as the animal lives. It is easy to calculate the cost and benefits of such approaches of natural soil fertility improvement. To this one also could add the ecological / environmental benefits and health benefits of avoiding the pollution caused by chemical inputs to soil, water, food and environment.  So, what is necessary is a little bit of imagination and some caution against the advice given by experts who are influenced by the companies that benefit the most from the fertiliser subsidy, and agriculture based on chemical inputs and commercial seeds. 

Having a sufficient number of cattle to improve soil fertility may take some time. Even simple methods of preventing soil erosion and mulching and the recycling of organic matter produced by farm land could improve soil fertility at very little or no cost. These methods could be adopted on every plot of land islandwide in any agro ecological zone.

One big difficulty that the government has in seeing wisdom is the blind assumption that every thing has to be done though the private sector. Thus, the government subsidises the private fertiliser companies much more than the farmers.  When a farmer gets a bag of fertiliser for Rs. 350, the company gets its bag of fertiliser sold to the government at Rs. 6,000. Therefore it is not surprising to see their experts saying that replacement of chemical fertiliser with organic fertiliser is possible only up to 25 %.  This argument needs to be examined. Research needs to be done to see if natural fertility improvement cannot replace chemical fertiliser 100 %.

Prevention of soil erosion by building small ridges along the contours and systems such as SALT (Sloping  Agricultural  Land Technology ) which can be done very easily practically at no cost on the types of small farms that our farmers have, will also add to improvement of natural soil fertility. Crop diversification and recycling of organic matter is another cost effective way to do it. These are natural methods of converting sun’s energy into soil fertility, food and nutrition which are possible within a very short time. Our scientists, agronomists and policy makers could have seen these simple scientific truths if they were not blinded by the near-monopoly control that Agrochemical companies have over agricultural knowledge, science and technology.

The present realities of high costs and ecological damage, that is reaching a massive global scale, should serve to bring about this new awareness without delay.

The government has a policy of depending on the private sector completely for seeds. The companies propagate seeds that have to be purchased every season and these seeds require heavy doses of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. It is necessary to find out if it is due to the particular quality of seeds that the farmer gets high yields, or if it is due to the added fertilisers.  Loss of natural soil fertility is ignored as a factor that brings down yields. Chemical fertiliser makes the plants less resistant and less healthy, which in turn contributes to increased pest damages. All these aspects need to be looked into. Such worthwhile research is not encouraged by private companies that make profits out of a type of agriculture that is outdated and destructive.

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