In today's Finshots we see how farmers are dealing with ever increasing fertilizer prices
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In 1968, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich wrote the infamous book titled The Population Bomb. His primary contention was simple — The world’s population keeps growing exponentially while we continue to cultivate a fixed land stock. If the trend persisted, then we’d have a hard time producing food for everyone. Mass starvation was inevitable, he professed rather confidently.
Needless to say, this prediction was a dud. Despite a growing population and fixed land stock, we managed to do just fine for the most part. So what happened? How did we avert this crisis?
Well, Paul Ehrlich got two things wrong.
- Human population didn’t explode as he originally predicted, instead, we saw a lull. And if you look at data from the past few decades, you’ll see that growth rates have actually been plateauing rather quickly.
- The second thing he missed — Fertilizers.
You see, agriculture output increased substantially after farm mechanization. But then it dropped once again, only for scientists to discover another potent solution — a heady concoction of fertilizers based on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). And it worked wonders. In fact, some estimates suggest that 50% of all crops used to feed people grow on fields laden with nitrogen-based fertilizers.
However, that proposition is a tad bit untenable right now.
Why’s that the case you ask?
Well, for starters, there’s the short term problem — price rise! Fertilizer prices are going through the roof thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You have two massive fertilizer exporters completely isolated right now and it’s had a veritable impact on prices. This doesn’t just mean lower income for farmers. But it also means less output (less food). And if there’s less food going around, consumers will have to pay a premium. So this affects us directly.
Now some in India will argue that this doesn’t affect us as much since fertilizer prices are managed by way of offering subsidies. But if prices keep rising, the government will not be able to absorb the full cost. It may come to affect us too.
The second problem (and a more long term issue) is that the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizer is fundamentally unsustainable.
Take India for instance. According to research, a desirable mix of NPK has to be in the ratio of 4:2:1. But in our quest to keep beefing up output, we amped up fertilizer use and the soil now boasts NPK of 7:2:4. In agricultural heavy states like Punjab, things are even worse — the ratio is at 31:8:1. And a 2019 report sounded an even more ominous proclamation— Nitrogen levels were at “alarming levels” with soil health taking a turn for the worse. Sure the excess fertilizers will help boost output in the short term. But if the trend persists then the soil may turn toxic. That’s pretty bad.
And so farmers occasionally have to turn to alternatives. An alternative from a bygone era — from 8000 years ago.
Yup, when prices start rising, farmers across the world begin to rely on dung —from cows, horses, pigs, and poultry. And since there’s quite a bit of it going around, it kind of makes economical sense. A milk-producing cow could provide 62kg of manure a day, a bull around 42kg and poultry around 1kg. However, despite the abundance, demand for manure has shot up recently with prices already heading north.
So you can kind of imagine how bad the situation is.
But there’s something else that’s even more plentiful — human waste. Humans produce five times more wastewater than the volume of water flowing over Niagara Falls. It’s not a fact that you definitely needed to know. But we just thought it would be best if you knew it anyway :)
And guess what? One study concluded that over 13% of all nutrients needed to pursue agriculture could come from municipal wastewater — aka human urine. In fact, it’s quite rich in nitrogen and phosphorous — things that plants need. And while you can’t just dump human waste on fields, the right infrastructure could help us in extracting the full “nutritional” value.
So that’s the solution then isn’t it? Go back to pee and poo!
Not quite. See, manure does help when fertilizer prices tend north. But the output isn’t all that enticing. Farmers almost inevitably switch back to fertilizers the moment prices rationalise. And if the government tries to intervene and force farmers to adopt the more organic alternatives, then that could have a disastrous impact as well. Look at Sri Lanka. Their government banned chemical fertilizers and agriculture output has dropped precipitously. They are now struggling to meet the bare necessities. So yeah, while it’s nice to imagine a world free of chemical fertilizers, the harsh reality is that it’s incredibly hard to make the switch.