Can you please tell us a little bit about the role of the IFDC?
The International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) was established in 1974 as a result of the global oil crises which caused, amongst other issues, skyrocketing fertilizer prices. Food shortages occurred in developing countries. The US Government wanted to help by reducing cost of agricultural inputs, specifically fertilizers, as a way to establish food security.
To address this crisis, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations organized a World Food Conference in Rome. In preparation for this Conference, the United States Government decided to offer “developed world know-how” in fertilizer research and soil fertility for the benefit of the developing world. IFDC started its activity adjacent to the renowned National Fertilizer Development Center.
Today, IFDC focuses its effort on four strategic priorities:
Develop better fertilizer products and technologies to improve soil health and plant nutrition.
Transfer these products and technologies to allow small holder agricultural systems to be more productive, profitable and resilient.
Strengthen inclusive Market Systems to scale technologies and improve livelihoods and environmental outcomes.
Improve policies, create capacity and knowledge to sustain impact.
IFDC’s fertilizer pilot plants, nearby greenhouses and laboratories allow the fertilizer industry to develop new and innovative fertilizer products and blends that deliver improved nutrient efficiency and reduce environmental impact. Most products and blends developed at IFDC ultimately benefit agriculture and food production in developing countries.
What do you see as the most pressing fertilizer topics in developing countries?
The situation is completely different in Africa (primarily Sub-Saharan Africa) from many countries in South Asia.
Nutrient availability to plants is extremely low with relatively high losses. In many cases much more fertilizer needs to be applied than would be necessary for plants to be productive. This is very costly for the farmer and not good for the environment. Very often this can be traced back to low and declining organic matter.
For decades, because crops extracted more nutrients than were added, soil’s nutrients have been depleted. Because of the low nutrient use efficiency and the perceived high cost of purchasing nutrients, smallholder fertilizer application rates are often very low (with average applications in the order of 10% to 15% of the required rates). Soils were also mined of secondary and micronutrients such as zinc, boron, and magnesium, to the degree that such micronutrients are almost totally absent in the soils of many regions.
The green revolution in Asia was effective. Bangladesh, for example, became a net food exporter. Crop yields across Asia increased over 200% for wheat, 110% for rice, 160% for maize, 80% for potatoes, and 35% for cassava. However, misguided fertilizer subsidy policies in some countries stimulated overuse of fertilizer, particularly nitrogenous fertilizer, causing negative environmental issues. Corrective measures are needed and are being discussed and, in some countries, implemented. Overuse is also an issue in many developed countries.
A common theme in both regions is the low fertilizer use efficiency due to imbalanced application and the need for site-specific fertilizer recommendations based on soil nutrient status and crop demand.
How can knowledge transfer about and access to fertilizers be improved?
Identifying individuals interested in grabbing a business opportunity (e.g. agricultural input dealers, agricultural service providers, buyers of produce, just to mention a few) and who need training and capacity building in business planning, administration, management. In IFDC’s experience such opportunities are often realized by woman and entrepreneurial youth. Market Systems Development, mentioned earlier, is the answer.
The fertilizer industry should become more demand driven and innovative, particularly in smaller markets. Blends of products (macro- and micronutrients) should satisfy real market needs. This also applies to Governments and extension services. Fertilizer Industry should engage in ecosystems of services where not only inputs are provided; output market linkages and credit solutions are major demand drivers that should be addressed.
Financing at the level of farmers, agro-dealers and importers/distributors is often limited and interest rates for agricultural loans prohibitive. Smallholder farmers only invest in fertilizers, if they produce a marketable surplus which can be sold. Government subsidy programs need to be developed in such a way that Government does not take over the role of the private sector, and that overtime subsidy programs become unnecessary. This is what IFDC often refers to as “smart subsidy programs” which help jumpstart a nation’s private fertilizer sector.
What do you see as the main priorities for improving global soil health and fertility?
During recent years, the seed industry made enormous progress in developing genetics for markets of developing countries that are more adapted to climate change. However, the yield gap between what the plant is capable to produce under good agronomic conditions and what is actually harvested, has become wider in many developing countries. More often than not, existing soil fertility and measures to improve soil health were ignored. Even with the best, most adaptive varieties of seed, if soil health is neglected, if soils lack nutrients and organic matter, the plant will not achieve optimal growth and deliver expected yields. Soil health is important to mitigate climate change.
IFDC developed the Soil SMaRT concept focusing on Soil testing, Mapping nutrient deficiencies, better fertilizer Recommendations and Transfer the information to farmers. Healthy soils can absorb large volumes of carbon by incorporating crop residues and root biomass. Soil organic matter management should be one of the main priorities for sustainable production, climate mitigation and resilience. Using the right type of fertilizer, the right dosage at the right time applied in the right place, increases crop productivity, and more carbon is sequestered. Soil is like the soul; it needs to be nourished and cared for. What is taken out needs to be replenished.