By Onyaole Patience Koku: Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
The problem with crop-protection products here in Nigeria is not that we use too many herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides.
Our problem is that we don’t use enough.
I’ve seen what can happen to farmers who fail to take up these important tools of modern agriculture. Weeds choke their fields, insects feast on leaves and stems, and molds spread disease. At the end of the season, farmers who don’t defend what they grow often have little or nothing to harvest.
I’m a proud user of glyphosate and other safe crop-protection technologies. They help farmers like me raise strong and healthy plants, allowing us to earn a living and also to make our small contribution to the food security of sub-Saharan Africa.
Our continent struggles to feed itself. We’ve fallen far behind the rest of the world in food production. Part of the problem is simple poverty. Our countries are poor. Our agriculture is primitive, dominated by smallholders who have yet to mechanize their operations with tractors, cultivators, and tine weeders. We lack a proper infrastructure of roads and warehouses. We don’t enjoy easy access to financial capital.
In Nigeria, we can’t even plant the GMOs that have improved farming across the developed world. We’re hoping to benefit from this choice soon, but this simple technology still lies beyond our reach because our government has been slow to recognize its remarkable advantages.
Thankfully, we do have basic crop-protection products. Glyphosate is one of the best. It’s the most effective broad-range herbicide and we’ve relied on it for as long as I can remember. It helps us defeat the weeds that seek to steal water and nutrients from our crops. We spray it on our fields before crops emerge. This lets them enjoy a weed-free start to their growth. Across Nigeria, farmers use it to protect corn, soybeans, rice, cassava, ginger, and other staples.
Farmers have to fight weeds no matter where they live. In Nigeria, we face a stubborn weed called the “aya aya.” Despite our best efforts, it always seems to return to our fields. There’s only one way to beat it, and that’s through pre-emergence applications of glyphosate. Nothing else works.
If we don’t treat our fields with crop-protection products, we know we’ll face a hard year. It will come from weeds such as the aya aya, from menacing insects such as the fall armyworm, or from a different threat. Our crops are under constant assault and we have to guard against these forces of destruction.
If we weren’t allowed to take advantage of crop-protection technologies—if they were suddenly banned, for example—African agriculture would fall into ruin. Weeds, bugs, and mold would overrun our farmland. Our yields would drop like a rock.
We’d try to control weeds the old-fashioned way, by bending over with hoes and cutting them out. This would provide some help, but nowhere near enough. Moreover, manual weeding is backbreaking labor that wears out bodies and shortens lives. In the 21st century, we should seek to escape this fate rather than return to it.
The bottom line is that without adequate crop protection, we could forget about building up the stable businesses that are essential to Africa’s economic future. As agriculture collapses, we would have a hard time just trying to feed ourselves. We would stop worrying about the problem of malnutrition, which is now one of our biggest challenges, and start worrying about famine and starvation.
Crop protection of course carries a few risks. It’s important for farmers to read the usage labels and follow the application instructions. This presents a special problem in a place where many farmers are illiterate. They would benefit from additional training. And even those who can read and know better must resist the temptation to remove their protective clothing when they work in the hot summer sun.
Back on the farm, I’m grateful for crop protection. I can’t imagine a world without it.
Ms. Onyaole Patience Koku co-founded and manages Replenish Farms where they grow mostly maize under irrigation in Nigeria. Patience is an outspoken advocate for making sure that all farmers have access to innovative technology and is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.
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