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The Truth about Trade

RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

People and the Soil Need a Balanced Diet to Thrive

Apr 11, 2013

 By V. Ravichandran:  Tamil Nadu, India

Everybody should eat a balanced diet, consuming the right types and amounts of food to ensure proper nutrition.

Agricultural soil needs a balanced diet as well, so that it can produce healthy crops.

That’s why fertilizer is so important. It’s the food that feeds the soil. Farmers everywhere must have easy access to it, especially in the developing world, where it’s often in short supply.

Without fertilizer, soil starves. Crops don’t grow as well as they should. The yields of farmers drop. People suffer.

So healthy people depend on healthy soil, fed by fertilizer.

As a farmer in India, I see malnutrition everyday. It’s a huge problem in my country, and it has many sources—but one of the main causes of human malnutrition in India is soil malnutrition. We don’t feed our soil the balanced diet it needs. As a result, our people don’t eat well enough.

A new report from the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management estimates that nitrogen and other mineral fertilizers nourish about half the people in the world. Without these inputs, in other words, about half of humanity would go hungry. So more than 3.5 billion people owe their health to fertilizers.

As successful farmers know, however, you can’t just "dump" fertilizer on cropland. That’s like eating a meal full of empty calories—they may fill your belly, but they’re harmful to your long-term health.

For crops, a balanced diet generally consists of three main ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (in addition to other micro nutrients). Nitrogen encourages robust plant growth. Phosphorous promotes root development. Potassium assists with the absorption of moisture and helps resist drought.

Together, they feed the soil—and the soil feeds the crops that feed us.

Sometimes, however, farmers try to get away with feeding the soil only one nutrient—and in India; the government actually encourages this bad idea. In a misguided attempt to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, New Delhi subsidizes nitrogen for agriculture. As a result, many farmers who don’t understand the basics of soil nutrition wrongly believe that nitrogen is all they need. Some even think that the more nitrogen they use, the better off they are. 

The truth is, that balanced soil nutrition, using nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is necessary for growing healthy crops.  Without that balance, crops may grow quickly, taking on a deep green that makes them look healthy on first glance, but often they don’t mature properly, as plants spend their energy on foliage rather than on grain. These plants also have a tendency to attract more pests. This creates an additional challenge for farmers, and it may lead to an overreliance on pesticides.

Poor fertilization practices make it harder for others to eat because these miscalculations add up, affecting the food supply. The systematic misapplication of fertilizer causes India to grow less food than it should. One estimate claims that our corn yield lags behind rates in other countries by as much as 45 percent, all because the government provides an incentive for farmers to rely too much on nitrogen.

Just as a poor diet will have long-term health consequences, fertilizer mistakes have a way of lingering long past the moment of the error. It takes time, energy, and resources to restore damaged soil to an original condition. Inexpensive soil tests can help many smallholder farmers from making bad mistakes in the first place.  The results of those tests each season will help these farmers know what fertilizer must be applied to nourish the soil and maximize their yield.

Better soil leads to better living—and it all starts with a balanced diet, both for people as well as for the earth. 

Mr. V. Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains).  He is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

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