Fertilizer Prices are on the Rise – Time to Promote Organic Fertilizers for Sustainable Production

Fertilizer Prices are on the Rise – Time to Promote Organic Fertilizers for Sustainable Production

Chemical Fertilizer Prices Keep Soaring

By Vincent Nhlema

There is a global outcry. Fertilizer prices have gone through the roof. The situation has sent panic not only to farmers but to world leaders as well. There is panic about how national and global agriculture production will be affected. They fear it could lead to food shortage, pushing commodity prices further upward.

The situation is more worrisome in least developed countries like Malawi, where foreign exchange scarcity exacerbates the situation. In the past three years, Malawi has seen rapid price increase for fertilizer. To a greater extent, this has been attributed to disruption of production and supply chain, induced by Covid-19. Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses a bigger threat to the fertilizer industry. Russia tops fertilizer and natural gas (a major component in production of nitrogen-based fertilizer) exports but with sanctions and disrupted supply logistics due to the invasion of Ukraine, supply shortage is looming.

The Malawi economy is predominantly agriculture based, with agriculture accounting for about 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and generating over 80 percent of national export earnings. This means failure to produce enough due to scarcity or high cost of fertilizers, will greatly haunt the already fragile economy.

During the 2020/21 growing season, fertilizer prices rose sharply. Urea and NPK ranged from MK35,000 to MK38,000 respectively per bag, from MK22,000 and MK20,000 per bag in the 2019/20 growing season. By that time, global prices had increased by almost 82 percent.

At the time of publishing this article, commercial prices for Urea and NPK were still volatile, at around MK65,000 and MK52,000 per bag, respectively. While amount of fertilizer for maize crop per hectare depends on several factors, including variety, soil fertility and yield target, on average a farmer aiming to produce 3-5 tons per hectare may need three bags of basal-dressing fertilizer and another three bags of top-dressing fertilizer.

National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) Chief Executive Officer, Dr Betty Chinyamunyamu said her organisation appreciates Dr Chinyamunyamu

that “the rising costs of fertilizer are driven by factors outside the control of the domestic economy. However, it is necessary for government to find a way to lessen the impact it may have on smallholder farmers specifically, and agriculture production in general.”

Chinyamunyamu further observed that the high cost of fertilizer is bound to affect fertilizer utilisation, with potential to reduce further outputs for the coming season.

She said “It is very worrying considering that generally yields for most crops in the country are already much lower than their potential due to soil degradation. The inability for smallholder farmers to access and apply adequate fertilizers will therefore further reduce the (already low) yield.”

The fertilizer situation has exposed how dependent Malawi agriculture is on inorganic fertilizers. Chinyamunyamu proposes that deliberate action should be taken to improve soil fertility at national level by promoting the complimentary usage of organic fertilizers and manure that help to improve soil health. Improving soil acidity levels is also key for fertilizers to be more efficient.

She notes that “The challenges brought by climate change means we have to aim at increasing our yields but in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

Stacia Nordin, a Permaculture Designer of Never-Ending Food (NED) agrees with Chinyamunyamu on the need to pay special attention to soil health if Malawi is to see changes in crop productivity.

“The repeated use of chemical fertilizers disturbs life within the soil and can pollute our air and water affecting productivity and environmental and human health,” said Nordin.

This, she said, affects productivity of the soil.

Nordin warned that “The soil is in desperate need for help. There is need to provide care by covering it with organic matter, feeding it a diverse organic diet, and fostering biodiversity in our agriculture systems.”

As to how this can be promoted, Nordin said “Let’s reduce support to synthetic chemicals and seeds in our purchases, businesses, policies, and programmes.  These actions are causing an artificial imbalance in the market skewed to chemically dependent narrow food system.”

Maize Crop grown under Permaculture Practice at the Nordin's

Ministry of Agriculture Public Relations Officer, Gracian Lungu, could not provide specific actions the Ministry plans to undertake to address the situation at hand, to avert the anticipated reduced crop production, apart from implementing the Agriculture Input Program (AIP), which benefits only a handful of farmers through provision of seed, and two bags of fertilizer (Urea and NPK).

On her part, Chinyamunyamu said her organisation is actively promoting the use of organic manure and other technologies such as Mbeya fertilizer, among smallholder farmers. She said Mbeya fertilizer requires minimal amounts of inorganic fertilizers but is equally efficient, enabling farmers produce at a reduced cost.

In the face of climate change, the impact of these challenges is very significant. In the last growing season Malawi already experienced reduced crop yields due to a combination of factors including delayed onset of rains in most parts of the country, and devastation by Tropical Cyclone Ana (which hit some parts of the country, more especially the southern region) in January this year. The rising cost of farm inputs, and lack of a clear policy and plan by government may be another disaster in the making, contrary to second sustainable development goal which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.