Agricultural Productivity Begins with the Soil Under our Feet
By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Springtime is here, and in the American heartland farmers are busy preparing their soil and planting crops. And although my childhood summers were spent on a cousin’s farm in Kentucky, my only regular experience with fertilizer these days is the occasional trip to the garden center. I suppose that is why I was surprised to learn recently that half of all crop yields are attributed to fertilizer.
We take for granted an abundance of plant nutrient options that can help our gardens—and our farms—produce abundant, affordable food. And the simple fact of the matter is that we would not be able feed the world, nor have any hope of meeting the food security needs of a growing global population, without the sustainable application of fertilizer.
We are nearly halfway through 2015 and FAO’s “Year of Soils” which is bringing global attention to the critical importance of soil health and the nutrients that make soil fertile and productive. There are many pathways to improving soil nutrition, including various types of fertilizers that provide plants with the nutrients needed to grow healthy and strong. Some work over time to create a healthy growing environment, while others can provide rapid and targeted nutrition to crops. Farmers, in their effort to maximize revenue per acre while preserving the health of their soil, often use combinations of fertilizers, depending on their needs and local growing conditions. When precisely used, farmers can minimize environmental impact and gain great benefit from fertilizers.
Unfortunately, these benefits are not enjoyed by every farmer around the world. Fertilizer production is often a complex process, and import and transport costs can make it much more expensive in remote villages in Central America or in rural Africa, where farmers have significantly lower incomes. For resource-poor, smallholder farmers and their families, having better quality seeds, access to fertilizer, and agronomic knowledge can make a huge difference, helping them move out of poverty to self-sufficiency.
In a recent groundbreaking report on how Latin America can build more productive agriculture systems, GHI and the IDB outlined a number of examples of partnerships that are helping smallholder farmers rise out of poverty and conserve natural resources like soil and water. One such partnership is taking place in rural Guatemala. Mosaic, one of GHI’s newest member companies, is partnering with farmers and NGO’s such as HELPS International to provide comprehensive support, as well as access to affordable fertilizer and the training to use it. In The Mosaic Villages Project, agronomists improve knowledge and practices to rejuvenate depleted soils and help farmers adopt methods such as planting in tight rows, soil conservation practices, and when and how to apply fertilizer in the right amount.
These farmers’ lives are being transformed as a result. Many farmers’ yields have increased three to five times, enabling them to grow enough to eat and enough surplus to sell, resulting in the ability to purchase clean water filters and improved, energy-efficient cooking stoves. It isn’t unusual in these villages for adult males to leave after the harvest season to find additional employment. With increased yields and incomes, farmers can stay with their families year round.
Examples like The Mosaic Villages Project must be brought to scale and extended to vulnerable farmers in the region, in order to preserve the most precious asset they have—their soil and their land—so they can feed themselves and their communities.