Opinion piece: Fertilizers give life!

The world’s population keeps increasing by the day. Currently, the earth sustains close to 7 billion people and it is very much on course to balloon to 9 billion by 2050. Indeed, this population increase is an amalgamation of population increase and depopulation of nations. Whiles some countries have virtually stagnated in terms of population, several others are increasing by at least 3% per annum.  In fact, out of the 195 countries of the world, only 29 countries have recorded population decline. Countries like Spain, Russia, Portugal, Japan and Germany have experienced depopulation mainly as a result of long term explainable demographic trends in their respective economies. However, there is a global net increase in population. Africa is expected to increase in population by additional 1.3 billion people by 2050 from the current 1.2 billion people. Thus, the population of Africa will more than double in less than four decades.

In Ghana, there are 29 million people as of 2018 with more than 600,000 people being added consistently to the population annually. The people of the Upper West region are about 700,000 (hope you get my drift). This also translates to about 2,000 children born a day! Much as I don’t want to bore you with statistics, I want to paint the real picture of the population crisis we are in globally and indeed in our country, Ghana. This means that food demand will rise with the increasing population. In fact food demand will rise by at least 60% globally. This requires two things: either farmers grow more crops by extending arable lands or grow crops on same lands with more intensification systems such as increased use of fertilizer, improved seeds, precision farming among others. The fact is, land mass don’t expand – they remain the same. Same land mass is expected to produce food to feed the growing population. Therefore, extending arable land by cutting down forests is just a knee-jerk measure. The true crux of the matter will surface when one day there will be no ‘virgin’ lands to cultivate. This, therefore makes extensive method of growing crops unsustainable. Countries need to focus on intensification methods of growing more crops on smaller parcels of land with the aim of bringing more efficiency per acre or hectare.

Undoubtedly, fertilizers will play a huge role in producing food to feed this burgeoning population which is expected to double in the next few years. Often, we hear people say, ‘fertilizers are killing us’; ‘fertilizers are chemicals’; ‘fertilizers are making fruits rot too quickly’ etc. What is more heart breaking is that, some media people also join in this chorus without checking the facts. First of all, what is fertilizer? It is any substance that contains nutrients that aids crop growth regardless of the source – be it organic or mineral. Crops like any other living thing, require nutrients to grow. But not all the nutrients are present in the soil. Therefore nutrients are combined from several sources (mostly natural) and packaged in appropriate forms for easy application by the farmer. Fertilizers are therefore applied to crops to feed it and not kill it – fertilizers give life! The challenge is how does the farmer apply the right fertilizer in correct amounts to produce high yields, maximize economic returns and minimize environmental impacts? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Fertilizers are not the problem, knowledge on fertilizer use is. As a nation, if we are able to provide quality fertilizers and train the farmer on how to apply fertilizers in optimum amounts to their respective crops, then we are heading in the right direction.

As a nation, if we are able to provide quality fertilizers and train the farmer on how to apply fertilizers in optimum amounts to their respective crops, then we are heading in the right direction

The government has launched a flagship project called Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ), under which fertilizers are subsidized. All in an attempt to improve fertilizer use and ultimately increase crop yields while creating jobs. However, it is estimated that fertilizer use in Ghana is 13 kg per hectare (a hectare is equivalent to a soccer pitch). This is well below many advanced nations that apply fertilizers in excess of 200kg/ha. In those advanced economies like the USA, Europe and China, where fertilizer use is high, life expectancy is well above that of Ghana. For example, life expectancy in China is 76.5 years compared to 62.9 years in Ghana. Additionally, South Africa consumes more than double the fertilizer consumed in Ghana, yet life expectancy in both countries are exactly the same as of 2018. To put it more simply, it is misleading to conclude that fertilizers are responsible for the relatively low life expectancy in Ghana.

Attempts to show the role of fertilizers in crop production has been studied for several years. In almost all studies, the inference is that one-third of the cereal production worldwide has been attributed to the increase in fertilizer consumption. This is also evident in Ghana to mean simply that, fertilizers are responsible for at least 30% of cereal yields. Therefore, 30% of our population actually owe their existence to fertilizers, given that cereals make up about half of our dietary needs. Without fertilizers, that ‘one-third’ of the cereal yields would not be possible.

Fertilizers are designed to give life to crops. Handling of (quality) fertilizers and proper application in optimum amounts are the challenges policy should be addressing. The need for fertilizers today is more essential than ever, given the upsurge of our population. Therefore, fertilizers are needed to feed the growing population. Let people peddle palpable falsehoods, but the fact still remains that fertilizers give life! Next time when you are seated behind a plate of rice or a bowl of kenkey, take some few seconds and appreciate the role of fertilizer in perpetuating life.


Derrick Tuffour-Mills

West Africa Agronomist, YARA

Phone: 0540101715

The writer is an agronomist and environmental scientist.

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