Economics - Southern Africa - Zambia - Agriculture
Conservation farming can counteract fertiliser prices
As fertiliser and petrol prices zoom and threaten food production in Zambia, farmers are being urged to adopt conservation farming.

The price of a 50kg bag of fertiliser has shot up from US$30 in December 2007 to $70, while the pump price of diesel has risen from $1 to about $2.80 per litre over the same period.

"Both diesel and fertiliser are among our major resources for farming, just like electricity," said Guy Robinson, president of the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU). "It is therefore our concern that the prices of fertiliser and diesel have risen three-fold ... this means that our farmers will not be in a position to produce as much crop to feed the nation as they did last season [2007/08]."

The Zambian government provides fertiliser subsidies to vulnerable famers, such as those headed by women and the elderly, and recently announced it would subsidise about 80,000 metric tonnes (mt) of fertiliser for small-scale farmers under its fertiliser support programme.

In the 2007/08 farming season fertiliser was subsidised by 60 percent, but in the 2008/09 season the government will pay 75 percent of the cost of fertiliser.

’’The only way forward for Zambia is to ensure our farmers grow more food [to avoid imports]; food has a critical role to play in a country’s inflation, and if we can’t grow enough then the prices of food and indeed all commodities are likely to be even more expensive next year’’ However, the ZNFU said the government’s criteria meant few farmers had access to the subsidies, intended for the most vulnerable farming households, and maintained that most small-scale farmers - 70 percent of the farming sector - would not be able to afford the inputs.

"With these subsidies, the number of our vulnerable but viable farmers benefiting from this programme will increase from 125,000 in 2007 to 200,000 next season," said Agriculture minister Sarah Sayifwanda.

Robinson commented: "Whereas we appreciate the government’s decision to provide more fertiliser under the support programme, there are still many, many small-scale farmers who will not benefit from the programme. This is why we are now encouraging our farmers to go for conservation farming as the best practice at the moment."

Conservation farming, or minimum tillage, discourages using heavy equipment like tractors and promotes the planting of nitrogen-fixing crops rather than using chemical fertilisers.

"As ZNFU, we have conclusively proved that conservation farming can produce wonders. If we can produce at least 2.5 tonnes per hectare then we would be feeding the whole region, and conservation farming is able to guarantee that. At national level we are currently producing 1.3 tonnes per hectare," Robinson said.

Sina Luchen, programmes officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Zambia, said his organisation has been trying to help small-scale farmers adopt conservation farming. "We have helped 6,000 farmers so far and we hope to help 80,000 farmers over the next five years."

In the 2007/08 farming season, Zambia almost met the annual requirement of 1.2 million mt of staple maize, after severe floods battered the agriculturally rich southern region for most of the growing season. The yield translated into a surplus of 143,000mt when added to stocks reserved from the previous season.

But according to Food Reserve Agency executive director Anthony Mwanaumo, government has since sold off 458,000mt of maize to local and foreign markets "to clear off bank loans and other drafts that were outstanding".

A sharp global increase in the price of fuel in the last year has pushed up the production costs of agricultural inputs, such as fertiliser, which have been passed on to farmers.

"The only way forward for Zambia is to ensure our farmers grow more food [to avoid imports]; food has a critical role to play in a country’s inflation, and if we can’t grow enough then the prices of food and indeed all commodities are likely to be even more expensive next year", said Henry Chipewo, a local economist. "I think this is the right time to start thinking of alternative means of production."

The FAO’s Luchen said programmes to provide universal access to subsidies, as in Malawi, would only increase dependence. "It is better to capacitate small-scale farmers to boost their production with alternative farming methods such as conservation farming."

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