Hike in cost of fertilizers may not be all bad news

By Huang Wan-tran 黃萬傳  / 

Mon, Jun 23, 2008 - Page 8

Due to the hike in upstream raw material costs, the prices of chemical fertilizers have risen recently. As it is currently the time for fertilizing crops such as rice and vegetables, chemical fertilizer price hikes have drawn an outpouring of complaints from farmers. Yet, from another perspective, now is an opportunity for government agricultural departments to review policies concerning the production, sale and use of chemical fertilizers, to address their uninformed use.

Domestically, the use of chemical fertilizers to increase crop output has been in place since the early days of Japanese rule. After the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government took over, it implemented policies of trading grain for fertilizer to increase food production. Administered through local farmers’ associations, this policy used bartering and control of fertilizers to indirectly affect grain supply. Soil acidification, which reduces productivity, is often caused by the use of chemical fertilizers.

This is frequently dealt with through crop rotation, the burning of straw, the cultivation of green fertilizers such as sesbania or the importing of more fertile soil, in order to improve yield.

However, within domestic agriculture the acidification of soil due to chemical fertilizer use is severe even though most farmers are unaware of the extent of the problem.

Government agriculture departments have conducted studies and tests on the use of chemical fertilizer on arable land, and have attempted to educate farmers, but with limited results. The situation is so bad that while some agricultural land desperately needs carbamide, farmers use ammonium sulphate; others have too high concentrations of phosphorous, yet farmers continue to use phosphoric fertilizers. This only makes things worse.

Many farmers are convinced that the use of chemical fertilizers can make crops grow faster and increase yield — and thus apply large amounts. Statistics show the domestic use of chemical fertilizers is, on average, twice that in Japan, so the proportion of production costs arising out of chemical fertilizers is high. For instance, the cost of fertilizers accounts for about 9 percent of the production cost of rice, 16 percent of sweet corn and 15.7 percent of citrus fruits. Hence, increasing fertilizer costs affect production costs.

In recent years, organic produce has gradually won favor with consumers. Countries such as Germany and Japan have created an expanding trend of organic farming. Domestically, there are also a small number of farmers who are willing to abandon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, for organic fertilizer. Although the connection between health and organic produce has attracted the attention of consumers, and various civil organizations, such as the Taiwan Organic Production Association, work in conjunction with the government to certify organic produce, the relatively late and slow development of the industry, combined with the degree of damage already caused by chemical fertilizer and pesticides, are factors that have caused consumers to be wary of organic produce.

I recommend that government agricultural departments seize the opportunity offered by fertilizer price hikes, to review the management and production efficiency of Taiwan Fertilizer Co, which has about 70 percent of the domestic fertilizer market, and to reconsider fallow and crop rotation policies and the future development of organic agriculture.

The government should reorganize policies on the use of arable land suitable for organic production, so that soil can rest and the health of the nation’s population be safeguarded.

Huang Wan-tran is the vice president of the Chung Chou Institute of Technology. Translated by Angela Hong