In Niger, A Small Success Story For Farmers
* An Experiment In Niger Shows How Science Can Help People Help Themselves Even Under The Harshest Conditions
February 12, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
BridgeNews, February 2, 2001
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-- Chemical fertilizer is controversial in the parts of the world that are already well fed. Organic farmers condemn it. European governments sometimes refuse economic aid to Third World countries that want to use it.
But in one of the harshest climates in Africa, chemical fertilizer is again proving its power to save children from starvation and protect a fragile ecosystem from desertification.
Niger is one of the poorest, driest parts of the inhabited world. It's in the Sahel, the region just south of the Sahara, where the desert shifts gradually back and forth over millions of square miles, depending on whether it's one of the relatively wet decades or one of the drier ones.
Farmers in Niger must grow one of the most drought-tolerant food crop known to man, a grain called millet. Even so, their crops often fail, or fail to produce enough food for the farmers' families.
Lots of people believed Niger's farming was beyond the help of modern science.
But Niger has 10 million people urgently seeking food, and if they farm badly, the desert will expand.
A team of researchers from the International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) thought they could help. "When people think of Sahelian agriculture, they usually think of water as the limiting factor, but soil fertility is just as important," says Andre Bationo of ICRISAT.
Bationo says, "The region's sandy soils lack a critical plant nutrient-phosphorous-and are low in nitrogen and organic matter. We felt that if farmers would use even small amounts of fertilizer--a process sometimes known as "micro-dosing"--their crops would respond dramatically."
"When we first started working here in 1985," Bationo notes, a number of well-meaning non-government organizations felt we should be working exclusively with animal manure. But the land couldn't generate enough forage to feed the number of animals needed to produce that much manure.
Andreas Buerkert, an ICRISAT team member from Germany, said "Once we found the right mix of phosphorus and nitrogen to apply with the seeds, farmers were quick to accept the technology."
Chemical fertilizer is expensive in Niger because it must be imported. Niger farmers had little experience with it, and little research had been done on the best types of fertilizer for them to use.
But soil analysis said the plants needed a strong shot of phosphorous and modest amounts of additional nitrogen. (Nitrogen, phosphorous and potash are the key soil nutrients needed by all plants, all over the world.)
Now the farmers use plastic Coke bottle caps to measure about 6 grams of the phosphorus-nitrogen mix onto each plant. This amounts to about 25 pounds an acre, or perhaps one-fifth of what a First World farmer would apply.
While labor intensive, using bottle caps concentrates the fertilizer much more directly on the plants' roots than can be placed with Western farm machinery.
In the village of Karabedji last year, farmers who micro-fertilized saw their yields increase by 50 to 100 percent. The fertilized plants also grow faster, which allows them to mature before the moisture from the early rains is baked out of the soil. That can be critical if the rainy season is short, and it often is.
Next year, with the larger crop residues from the increased grain
yields plowed back into the village fields, the soil should be able to retain even more moisture, and drought reduction, along with increased soil quality, is added to the list of benefits.
A village elder in Karabedji explained the extra grain produced in his village would not only help to feed the community, but would buy additional fertilizer for the next year's crop--hopefully creating an upward spiral both in crop production and the ability to protect the region from the encroaching desert.
The Niger Ministry of Agriculture is making fertilizer loans to local farmers, with the support of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and local non-government organizations.
All of this may seem a small matter, perhaps, in a world with 6 billion people. However, it's another demonstration that science can often help people save themselves and their environment even under the harshest conditions.
It's also another useful reminder of how much the First World owes to chemical fertilizer. Without it, we would be unable to supply today's great cities with food.
We would be mining our soil nutrients, and headed for the sort of decline that overtook such ancient cultures as Biblical Babylon and the Mayan cities of Latin America.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.