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.

Brainfood: Diversification, Nepal agrobiodiversity, Agroecology double, Agroforestry, Seeds of deforestation, Millets models

Brainfood: Domestication syndrome, Plasticity & domestication, Founder package, Rice domestication, Aussie wild rice, European beans, Old wine, Bronze Age drugs

The case against biofortification

Wait, what? Against biofortification? What can possibly be the case against breeding staple crops to have higher concentrations of micronutrients? How can you argue against making wheat or beans more nutritious?

Well, in his latest Eat This Podcast episode, Jeremy interviews one of the authors of a paper which argues just that. And that author is…Jeremy:

…we focus on four things, really. One is about the yield. There seems to be a yield penalty. That is, you don’t get as much total crop from a biofortified food as you do get from a non biofortified variety. Another worry is genetic uniformity. A third is about their suitability for the very poor subsistence farmers who are probably the ones who most need more micronutrients in their diet. And finally, there’s almost no evidence that it actually works, that it actually improves the health and well being of the people who eat biofortified foods. In fact, it’s really strange to … It’s really difficult to find evidence that it works.

Maarten van Ginkel and Jeremy go on to say that a much better way to tackle micronutrient deficiencies — hidden hunger — is more diverse diets.

In fact, I think even uber-biofortificators such as HarvestPlus would probably concede that point, judging by an article they have just released marking their twentieth anniversary. Though I suspect that was not always the case.

Be that as it may, I think each of Maarten and Jeremy’s drawbacks of biofortification can be disputed, or indeed rectified, as they in fact concede, to be fair. For example, does a yield penalty actually matter everywhere? And has the release of a biofortified variety in an area actually led to a decrease in genetic diversity there? And if it has, could that not be addressed simply by more, and more diverse, biofortified varieties? And yes, the evidence that release of a biofortified variety translates into positive nutritional outcomes is limited and patchy — but not non-existent.

Anyway, the central fact remains that we still don’t know whether a more holistic approach to hidden hunger through diet diversification would have been more cost-effective and sustainable than the at least $500 million or so that Maarten and Jeremy say have gone into biofortification over the years.

LATER: Oh and BTW, there’s a Biofortification Hub.