Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘nitrogen

Floating candy, micro loans and Chinese tomatoes

leave a comment »

One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

This eclectic selection of reports does have one common theme. And that is a measure of desperation. The global triple crisis – that of finance and credit, of climate change, and of food and hunger – has pushed the poor to desperation, but it has also pushed companies and institutions to desperation. Desperate measures is what links the stories of a floating supermarket in Brazil, normally safe microloans going bad, fertiliser overuse in north India and Chinese tomatoes in Italy.

1. Nestlé’s ‘floating supermarket’ makes its voyages under Amazon skies. The ‘Terra Grande’ vessel is an investment by the Swiss food group designed to reach isolated riverside communities in the Amazon region. The vessel is designed to enhance Nestle’s reach among the lower income consumers that make up a core part of its market. The company has been in Brazil for 89 years and products like its powdered milk are staples among Brazil’s poorer consumers. As the economy continues to grow quickly, Nestlé is hoping that rising incomes among the poor will bring its higher priced goods within their reach, too.

2. Microfinance markets in Nicaragua, Morocco and Pakistan have seen default levels climb to more than 10 percent, the threshold that marks a “serious repayment crisis,” according to a February report from Washington, D.C.-based policy and research firm Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Delinquencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina stayed below that level only because of “aggressive loan write-offs,” the report said. While there has been no evidence of a “widespread repayment crisis” in India, “a number of industry analysts have highlighted industry vulnerabilities,” the report said.

Here is a slice of Bloomberg’s reportage on the problem in India: “Savita Ramesh Rathore stood at the door to her dimly lit workshop in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, filled floor-to-ceiling with bundles of old clothes, and tallied up the cost of her son’s wedding last year. ‘Jewels, clothes, food, the town hall,’ said Rathore, 50, who makes towels from discarded clothes. She borrowed 30,000 rupees ($645) from moneylenders charging 60 percent interest and took additional loans from friends to pay for the wedding. Three months ago, she got a 10,000 rupee loan from urban lender Hindusthan Microfinance Pvt. to repay some of that debt.”

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

3. A new study by Greenpeace Research Laboratories shows that agriculture in Punjab is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, the result of the overuse of highly-subsidised synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by farmers striving to step up their output. Dr Reyes Tirado, a scientist from the University of Exeter, sampled wells in 50 villages in the areas of Muktsar, Bhatinda and Ludhiana, and found that 20 per cent had nitrate levels above the World Health Organisation recommended safety limit of 50 mg per litre.

Farmers are aggressively using the nitrate fertilisers with the aim of boosting their annual yield. But scientists warn that this overuse is gradually exhausting the soil, which will eventually leave it unfit for food production. PepsiCo, the cola company which also makes potato chips, sources potatoes from farms in Ludhiana, and lost no time in claiming fatuously that it encourages its agricultural suppliers to use less nitrogen-based fertilisers.

4. Italy’s agriculture minister declared “We will defend the Italian tomato” in response to reports by Coldiretti, an agricultural association, that Italian imports of Chinese tomatoes had soared by over 170 per cent in the past year and now made up 10 per cent of the country’s processed tomato market. Chinese tomatoes are being imported into Italy for processing into paste and then re-exported with an Italian label to countries like Ghana which buys about 28,000 tonnes from Italy each year. Chinese exports of food and drink to the EU have doubled over the past decade, reaching 3.2bn euros in 2009.

India’s fertiliser addiction fiddle

leave a comment »

The Economic Survey 2009-10 has attempted to conceal the true impact of chemical fertiliser abuse in India. Chapter 2 of the Survey deals with agriculture, and the Survey states: “The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrients terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09.” This is false. Here is why.

India per hectare chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

India per hectare chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

In 1950-51 the average fertiliser use in India was only 0.58 kg per hectare. The net sown area was 118.75 million hectares upon which 69,000 tons of fertiliser were used. Of course this is a notional average use only, as 60 years ago fertiliser was an agricultural input in only a few districts which were being primed for what was to become the Green Revolution. Still, that was the ‘national average’. It took 16 years before that average crossed 10 kg of fertiliser per hectare, and that happened in 1967-68 when the net sown area was 139.88 million hectares and the total fertiliser use was 1.53 million tons.

Thereafter it took only 5 years to reach 20kg/ha. The period 1971-72 to 1975-76 saw little change – the only such period in the last 60 years – in intensity of fertiliser use. Those were the years of the global oil crisis, the so-called first oil shock of the seventies. For that time, the ‘national average’ remained between 18 and 20 kg/ha while the total net sown area varied but little from 140 million hectares and total fertiliser use stayed between 2.65 and 2.89 million tons.

Per hectare application of fertiliser continued its upward trend from 1975-76 and it took less than 8 years to cross 50kg/ha and another 6 years to cross 80kg/ha – in 1989-90 India’s total fertiliser use was 11.56 million tons. In the decade of the 1990s, total fertiliser use in India rose by 44% (from 12.54 mt to 18.06mt) and per hectare application went up by 46% as the available agricultural land plateaued at around 140 million hectares.

India annual chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

India annual chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

Both total use and per hectare application remained at those levels until 2004-05. In the last four years there has been an astonishingly steep increase in the total consumption and per hectare use. For 2008-09 the total fertiliser use at 24.9 mt is more than 6.5 mt more than the figure for 2004-05, and per hectare use has shot up to over 174 kg/ha from 130 kg/ha in 2004-05, a jump of 33% in just four years.

The Economic Survey 2009-10 states: “Chemical fertilisers have played a significant role in the development of the agricultural sector. The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrients terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09. However, improving the marginal productivity of soil still remains a challenge. This requires increased NPK application and application of proper nutrients, based on soil analysis.”

The Survey is wrong. The per hectare use crossed 105 kg in 1997 – nine years before the Survey says it did – and crossed 130 kg in 2004-05. In 2008-09 the rude equation is: 143 million hectares of net sown area; 24.9 mt of total fertiliser consumption. The Survey has concealed true per hectare consumption of fertiliser by swapping net sown area with gross sown area. Net sown area is the land surface on which crops are grown. To assess output and productivity, when cultivated land is used to grow more than one crop per year, that area on which the second crop is grown is counted again, which gives us gross sown area.

Counting cultivated land more than once raises the sown area from 143 million hectares (net) to 190 million hectares (gross). And that is how the per hectare consumption of fertiliser is portrayed as much lower than it truly is. Chemical fertiliser however affects the parcel of land, and is not divisible by the number of crops the land is employed for. The resulting difference is enormous: 45.4 kg/hectare!

The data I have used comes from the Reserve Bank of India Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy 2008-09. For 2007-08 and 2008-09 I used the total NPK consumption figures from the Economic Survey 2009-10.