Fertile Earth: the misery of fertilizer dependent agriculture

Modern agriculture feeds over 7 billion people and, of course, provides many other commodities. Despite this, it is doubtful that mankind will be able to tackle all of the upcoming problems related to industrialised agriculture.

The bigger picture – A sustainable and fair development path?

The green revolution, the implementation of certain technologies and practices is responsible for an enormous improvement in agricultural yields and productivity. The original (or Asian) green revolution, which entailed the introduction of mainly rice, wheat and maize varieties to developing countries of Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, took place during the 1960s and 1970s. The term also describes an increase in 20th century agricultural innovations such as mechanisation, mineral fertilisers and pesticides.

There is no single definition for the term “Green Revolution.” Nevertheless plenty of literature points out the controversial status of (post-industrialisation) processes leading to substantial changes in agriculture. Paarlberg (2010) describes viewpoints, criticising the green revolution in the fields of ecology and social science. Simultaneously he never misses the chance to underline the most famous argument used by green revolution advocates: Agricultural productivity must increase in order to keep pace with population growth, to prevent hunger and to limit the need for additional agrarian land (Paarlberg 2010). Tilman et al. (2002) summarize the biophysical background of such argumentation in their article on agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Regarding fertiliser, they depict a substantial 3.5-fold increase in the use of phosphorus and a 7-fold increase in the use of nitrogen fertiliser within the period from 1960 to 1995. At the same time the use of other inputs such as pest control agents and irrigation schemes rose as well, leading to high global food production and the highest (area) productivity to date. The downside of all this has many faces. The ecological consequences range from soil degradation, reduced lifetime of hybrids compared to naturally evolved plant varieties and the never ending emergence of pests (bacterial pathogens, insects or herbs) resistant to human pest control implementations (Tilman et al. 2002).

At the social level positive as well as negative impacts of the green revolution prevail too. In Latin America rural inequality increased simultaneously to the implementation of green revolution technologies and as a result of prevailing inequitable circumstances regarding land ownership and access to credit (semifeudal hacienda estates). Agricultural land became more valuable, backfiring on the poor who had previously been allowed to subsist on land they did not own. On the contrary, small farms often managed the adaptation to green revolution seeds faster than larger farms in Asia. The increased productivity and therefore farm labour use pushed up rural wages, corresponding to some development theories of the time (Paarlberg 2010; Diao et al. 2007).

Before continuing with the status quo analysis it is important to allude once more to the dispute over the need for another green revolution. The transformation of food to cash crop production has prevailed in many areas of the world, leading to an even greater and even more diverse exploitation of natural resources.

Fertiliser Goods – Market Analysis

Assuming that high green revolution yields are inevitable in order to evade the Malthusian trap independently of the degree of globalisation and trade or consumption patterns, what are the current socio-economic characteristics of the fertiliser markets?  And to be more precise: How could/does the SSA region handle the transition towards a highly productive agriculture?

Products and Production

R&D efforts (struvite precipitation) in the field of resource oriented sanitation aim for phosphate mineral fertilizer extraction from human urine (Source: author)
R&D efforts (struvite precipitation) in the field of resource oriented sanitation aim for phosphate mineral fertilizer extraction from human urine (Source: author)

Green revolution varieties are highly responsive to optimum fertiliser supply which requires high amounts of nutrients available in the soil at the right moment. Thus, for a broader perspective its necessary to consider all commodities able to provide those nutrients and the availability of knowledge regarding adequate application practices. Organic fertilisers like manure or organic wastes are comparatively cheap and in general locally produced, but at the time being the available quantities often do not meet the needs of intensified cropping practices (Kelly et al. 2007). Among other ideas, Logsdon (2010) describes the relative scarcity of animal manure in the United States. He also demonstrates the economic constraints when applying natural fertiliser under market conditions prevailing in the USA. For example, manure is not only relatively scarce, hauling manure over large distances is also not a viable practice. Since livestock breeding in the rural regions of SSA rarely occurs in centralised systems, such arguments may prove wrong in this case. As Linzner (2009) shows, examples for organic fertilizer markets exist but are often restricted to peri-urban agriculture.

The possibility of using natural alternatives aside, assuming that farmers firmly believe in artificial fertilizer technology and that they can afford such goods, there are two possible supply avenues: domestic production or transnational trade. Features of the manufacturing processes of the majority of all mineral fertiliser products are:

  • Technology and therefore investment intensive
  • Energy-intensive and therefore intensive in operation cost (Keywords: Haber-Bosh process, natural gas, oil)
  • Afflicted with tail gas (greenhouse gases) and other by-product emissions and, in the global perspective, a treatment of such is not state of the art.
  • Dependent on mineral resources (phosphate rock, potassium and magnesium) (Wood & Cowie 2004)

The (private sector) fertiliser industry provides a number of different bulky, mainly granular products which are afflicted with high transportation cost ranging from US$ 2.00 in Fiji to US$ 45.80 in Indonesia per ton (in the survey Isherwood cites, transport cost refers to the cost of transporting a ton of fertilizer from port or factory to the survey area) (Isherwood 2000). However, for the reasons listed above the industry strives for economies of scale under the constraints of a) transportation efforts and b) the physical and legal availability of necessary inputs.

Based on the generalized description of fertiliser production, it is not hard to imagine that some of the input resources are widely regulated by governments all over the world. Mining activities, for example, are quite often subjected to permitting policies. Electrical power supply is often provided by public utility enterprises (as it is the case in Ethiopia). This involvement of governmental power potentially favours the development of domestic companies whereas existing international agreements (e.g. Structural Adjustment Program) may try to prevent such discriminating strategies. The situation given for necessary production inputs enforces an even more complex socio-economic analysis of the good. Fertiliser itself is doubtlessly a private good but the raw material inputs are not. However, their entitlement as a common or public good is controversial.
Production in the whole SSA region reaches only 0.1 per-cent of the global industry output. The global market is already highly concentrated (the top four firms control more than 50% of the total production) and the situation in the SSA region is even more extreme. Often only one firm is responsible for the nation-wide production and at the time being, specialisation on a certain type of fertiliser is typical. In each country of the SSA region the top four firms hold 100% of the production capacity and focusing on Ethiopia, there is no concentration ration indicator to write about. Production does not exist and application rates at a diminishing level reflects a relation which holds true all around the world: Consumption rates correlate to a nations production capacity. Big producers are big consumers (Hernandez & Torero 2011).
Dealing with supply side constraints existent in SSA countries, Hernandez & Torero (2011) refer to a “lack of competition among suppliers and distributors within the country or region, poor dealer networks, lack of adequate infrastructure and market information, and limited access to finance”. This statement corresponds to the manufacturing sector as well, but it is of special interest when the product is analysed in it’s marketing.

Beyond Production: Import and Marketing

Even where no domestic producer is to be found, there are still different opportunities and political approaches to overcome cases in which too little fertiliser is available. Unfortunately, the success of policy efforts is often less than assumed. For the three example countries Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, Jayne et al. (2003) show up a lack of efficiency in domestic mar- keting. They calculate a possible farm-gate price reduction between 11 and 18% for each of the countries and like countless others they call for more expedient policy-making.

Test plot scaled application of non-chemical (urine) fertilizer via drip irrigation (Source: author).
Test plot scaled application of non-chemical (urine) fertilizer via drip irrigation (Source: author).

Kenya, for example, tends to implement an import and distribution liberalizing policy since 1990. On the contrary, after a short deviation towards market liberalisation, Ethiopia’s strategy now seeks economies of scale by implementing the import monopolist AISE (Agricultural Import Supplies Enterprise). Unfortunately, for the time being there is a lack of evidence that AISE’s bulk purchases result in discounts in international markets.
The strategy also includes regional tender processes implementation to award monopoly distribution rights to one firm or to cooperative unions per district. Regional governments strongly regulate cooperative retailers or “last mile distributors” e.g. by the declaration of maximum profit margins and mandatory marginal administration costs (Jayne et al. 2003; Shahidur et al. 2012).

Irrespective to the type and status of market reforms, smallholder farmers often depend on loans for additional farm inputs like fertiliser and hybrid seeds. In order to establish political intentions, it it’s often a national public institution who provides such financial flexibility. Assessing the loan recovery rate itself is a tricky task. In Ethiopia, for example, the large-scale New Extension Intervention Program (NEIP) reports that rate is extraordinary high. The fact that the national government has required regional governments to pay for unrecovered loans adds a pinch of confusion to such messages. As a result of bundling power at different levels of the government, one might also find stories about harsh treatment of farmers including imprisonment and the like (Suppressing Dissent 2005).

Preconditions for Success

As briefly mentioned already, green revolution crop varieties respond very well to nutrient availability. Countless scientific fields deal with processes contributing to mineral fertiliser decomposition, the biophysical and chemical behaviour of its subcomponents until they reach roots ready to exchange the ions of interest. Additional to a well formulated product description and application instructions delivered with fertiliser products, planning fertiliser application rates and schedules relies (at least) on knowledge of soil hydrology, climate and weather conditions.
All over the world different actors attempt to spread such knowledge. Many different institutions and media exist to do so and with this variety the discussion whether such knowledge is a common good or not seems to be rather difficult. The following list provides only a few issues for consideration:

  • Information and directions for use: Is it understandable, complete and appropriate for the area of application?  Is it available at all?  Smallholder farmers often purchase only amounts smaller than packages delivered by producers and distributors may not provide instruction at leaflet copies. Are all end-users able to read such instructions?  Is there a reasonable possibility of intended misinformation in order to provoke higher sales?
  • Academic research projects and existing knowledge: The timing of fertiliser application and even the way it is applied is a crucial task. It depends on many factors including soil properties, soil-water conditions, crop varieties, the crop’s biophysical status and crop rotation cycles just to name a view. At present there are only a few examples in which information on this matter is available to the public in low income countries. Mostly this information is not free of charge and especially in the SSA region companies are not forthcoming to end-users like smallholder farmers. Nevertheless, critics express the need for this information to become a common good (for further informations see: The agricultural knowledge infrastructure: public or pri- vate?).
  • Private and governmental organisations and programs: long term weather forecast services are costly in terms of infrastructure and labour. Nevertheless they are (at least in some regions) an indispensable instrument in order to prevent major losses of fertiliser-components by percolation to deeper aquifers or when being washed away with surface run-off. As mentioned before, efforts are being made to enhance our understanding of soil water movement and transportation processes, however it is questionable if the conclusions are applicable in every corner of the world.

Regardless of the source of missing knowledge, the economic viability of mineral fertiliser is more uncertain if institutions which provide soil analysis an weather forecasts of irrigation consultancy do not exist or are not available to end-users due to whatever reasons.

The who is who

Agricultural practices and therefore productivity fundamentally differs from region to region. The need for change is proclaimed by different actors with agendas which could not be more different. The World Bank worries about an average use of only 8 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare in Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore aligns with the position of many other governmental organisations (Kelly et al. 2007). In the 1968 speech to the the Society for International Development, William S. Gaud states: “Take fertilizer. To produce their high yields, the new seeds require far more fertilizer than traditional varieties can absorb. Fertilizer – inducing a demand for it, supplying it, teaching farmers to use it and putting it to work – is one key to the Green Revolution” (Gaud 1968). Perhaps the current Administrator of the US Agency for International Development would formulate things more modestly, nevertheless Gaud dramatically emphasised the importance of fertiliser. An importance that still exists or that is even more dominant in modern agriculture.

Unfazed by speeches on political stages around the world, farmers in the SSA region face problems inherent to their subsistence situation. Nevertheless they are definitely a part of the fertiliser market structure.
In general, one can determine the following stakeholders and actors, which have interests in non-organic fertiliser as a green revolution technology:

  • Private Sector
  • Farmers whose demand might be affected by factors like credit availability, output price and access to output markets, availability of principal complementary inputs (i.e. improved varieties), weather risks….
  • Domestic and international fertiliser producing and trading sector companies and associations (IFA – International Fertiliser Association, TFI – The Fertiliser Institute, domestic marketing sectors)
  • Politics and the Public Sector
  • Governments: In some SSA countries public companies manage fertiliser trade, import and export. Policy affects the economy via subsidies, taxes or tariffs.
  • Governmental Organisations: World Bank, UNO, OECD, traditional (OECD-DAC members like (ADA, GZA,…) and emerging donor organisations (non-DAC donors like Saudi Arabia, UAE)
  • Civil society and NGO’s: As this essay denotes, the use of fertilisers as one of the most important green revolutions technologies has the potential to directly affect the environment. Especially aquatic environments and groundwater bodies are prone to pollution by nutrients and other fertiliser constituents. This could either directly cause health issues or result in a loss of ecosystem services and resources in general (Falconer 1999 and Dodds et al. 2009). Despite being a states responsibility, in practice it is often NGO’s who are encouraged to protect the environment and demand civic and human rights.


It seems important to ask which strategy would support private sector grass roots movements. As depicted in the previous section, mineral fertiliser production is not only based on non renewable inputs, it also demands conditions currently only given in already strong or emerging economies. Alternatives might be low budget and decentralised technologies for example the “humanure” businesses: Urine collection and processing is one of the central research topics of the CLARA project in Arba Mich, Ethiopia (CLARA, Capacity-Linked water and sanitation for Africa’s peri-urban and Rural Areas).

If mankind continues using “standard” green revolution technologies, which are currently dependent on exhausting resources, this practices will sooner or later enforce a profound change in the human interaction with nutrient cycles. SSA still faces economic barriers which hamper the use of chemical fertiliser in all parts of the countries. Alternative approaches to feed green revolution seeds, are developed in poor regions. These alternatives may alleviate the losses, if, as a result of more of the same (growth), economic model countries end up with ecological or social disaster. With respect to the requirements for the use of chemical fertiliser, one may refer to the words of Yacouba Sawadogo, the focus of the documentary feature film The Man Who Stopped the Desert: “How should a society develop before the food supply is secured?  Only if it’s guaranteed that the there’s enough to eat, dealing with other problems is possible” (1080 Film – The Man Who Stopped the Desert 2010).

Summary and Conclusion

The text looks at the use of artificial fertiliser (from a fairly critical point of view), potentially necessary to implement and continue industrialised agricultural practices. At some points it calls into question whether an unconditional presence of a chemical fertiliser market is a positive development. This may be especially true in cases in which the market does not function properly and where alternative ways to fertilise the soil are feasible. A rather superficial description of product and production properties gives an idea about the limitations induced by the dependency on depleting scarce natural resources.
Due to the strong dependency on basic prerequisites (political stability, technological needs) and the necessity of economies of scale, a) in many countries of the SSA region significant barriers exist — relatively high transportation costs are only one example —, b) many different means of economic policy-making abound and c) international interests prevail in exert influence. That domestic and external political, as well as economic power games are intensified by the degree of fertiliser market centralisation, seems logical at the first glance. This is not alleviated by the fact, that artificial fertilisers are a globally traded good
However, international organisations do finance research projects focusing on the objective to elaborate feasible alternatives to artificial fertiliser. Scientists, journalists and even a few politicians all over the world have begun to deal with the promising potential behind unsavoury keywords, may it be manure, waste water sludge, human faeces or urine. Sooner or later mankind may just close the nutrient cycles, which are currently broken up by the use of depleting resources. And it is likely that many SSA countries are in this manner even more developed than the developed countries.


Considerations generally refer to the use of artificial mineral fertiliser. Organic fertiliser or traditional methods to enhance or sustain nutrient availability play an important role in feeding populations (especially in regions where low-technology farming practices prevail), but for the time being their impact is very limited and confined to a regional level.

At some points, especially regarding technical issues, the analysis is based on generalisations, simplifications and assumptions, which are partly discussed in the last section of the essay.

Literature Used:

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