Fertilizers redux

Long-time readers may well remember that we have talked about Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy programme a number of times here over the past — what is it now? — 15 years?

Let’s recap.

Controversially, against the advice of its most powerful donors, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika subsidized inputs through a government-funded voucher scheme known as the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). Millions of small-holder farmers received fertilizer and improved seed at a fraction of the market price… With good rains and a strong response to subsidized fertilizer and improved seeds, national maize production doubled in 2006.

That’s from a recent commentary by Glenn Denning, Professor of Professional Practice at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. There has been much criticism of the strategy over the intervening years, just look at some of the articles and papers we have linked to over the years, but Prof. Denning seems to have no doubt that in the end it worked, and not just in Malawi.

Critics argued Mutharika struck it lucky with the weather, and that these results could not be sustained… However, despite changes in national leadership and stop-start support from Malawi’s donors, the FISP has continued as a strategy for increasing farm productivity and national food security. The results are impressive. Since 2005, Malawi’s farmers have generated surpluses over national requirements in all but three years—2015, 2016, and 2018… National maize production increased by 79 percent between 2004 and 2019 (comparing averages for 2002-2004 and 2017-2019). This increase was the product of a 62% increase in average yield and 10% increase in harvested area. As a country with limited land resources and a high population density, Malawi’s increase in maize production mirrored the experience of Asia, demonstrating that it was possible to intensify existing cultivated land under rainfed conditions.

So, mission accomplished, right? Ahem, not quite…

Despite these encouraging results from Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, it would be premature to declare “mission accomplished.”

Damn. So what else do we need to do, for pity’s sake? I was thinking we had the elusive silver bullet here.

Well, Prof. Glenn Denning does double down on better-maize-seeds-plus-fertilizer, but says it’s time to add a distinctly green twist:

  1. reduce the footprint of fertilizers through more precise recommendations and deploying more efficient varieties
  2. restore abandoned land through the strategic use of legumes and trees
  3. abandon some annual crops for more tree-based systems
  4. reduce post-harvest losses
  5. protect natural ecosystems

Fertilizers, plus agrobiodiversity, you could say.

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