Sustainable agriculture and fertilizer practices in Pakistan

Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy.

It has a total area of 79.61 million hectare, and the total area used for crop production is only 22 million ha.

Of which about 18 million ha (80 percent) are irrigated.

Pakistan agriculture accounts for 24 percent of the growth domestic product (GDP), employs 48 percent of the labour force and contributes about 60 percent to export earnings.

Pakistan is a developing country with the world’s sixth-largest population. The current population of Pakistan is about 160 million, which is growing at the rate of almost two percent annually.

The major population of the country (67 percent) lives in rural areas and depends mainly on agriculture, and about 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. GDP growth continues to depend on crop performance.

The total food production in Pakistan is about 25 million tones in 2002/03 as compared to 10 million tones in 1970/71.

However it is interesting to state that the consumption of fertilizer per hectare in Pakistan (133 kg approx.) is higher than the world average (94.1 kg/ha) but yield productions are substantially lower.

This indicates to a big gap between the supply and demand of agricultural products, which is widening day by day due to the increasing population of the country.
Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable productivity in our agricultural ecosystems is therefore an important objective. Sustainable agriculture depends on a whole-system approach whose overall goal is the continuing health of the land and people. Therefore it concentrates on long term solutions to problems instead of short term treatment of symptoms.

There are several important constraints to sustainable agriculture and causing low productivity.

They include soil degradation (soil salinity, alkalinity, erosion and soil fertility depletion), depletion of water resources, mismanagement of irrigation systems, the distribution of the land holdings and poor farming practices.

The use of farm inputs, particularly of fertilizers, is inadequate and inefficient. Farm energy use is low. The availability of quality seed is limited. Agricultural research is lagging behind the new challenges. Agricultural extension services are not tuned to modern technology. 

The flow of information from research to farmers is inadequate. Coordination between policy, research, extension and farmers could be improved. Disbursement of agricultural credit amounts to over Rs.50 billion per annum, but is less than the requirements and is not reaching small farmers.

An inadequate marketing infrastructure results in high marketing costs and losses. The fertilizer recommendations are too general. Soil testing laboratories are not adequately equipped in terms of manpower and equipment. As a result, the majority of the farmers become resource-poor and can not get benefit and therefore, our crop yields are one of the lowest in the world.

Declining land productivity with reduced crop yields has been also a major problem facing our farmers. The major factors contributing to the reduced land productivity is soil impoverishment caused by continuous cropping without addition of adequate mineral fertilizers and manures.

Moreover, negative soil nutrient balances (nutrient removal exceeding nutrient application) during our cropping history have resulted in general deterioration of fertility levels. Sustained, high yield agricultural production can be assured once these negative balances are addressed. Crop fertilization is the main tool available.

Fertilizer has played a key role in helping farmers achieve their high level of production. Fertilizers provide essential plant nutrients which are indispensable for producing sufficient and healthy food for the world’s expanding population. Plant nutrients are therefore a vital component of any system of sustainable agriculture.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and in recent years, zinc, boron and sulfur are the nutrients of most concern in the grain-production regions. Unfortunately our soils are deficient in Nitrogen (100 %), Phosphorus (90%), Zinc (70%) and Boron (55%). Potassium (K) is generally adequate but its deficiency is emerging rapidly.

Deficiencies and responses to other nutrients such as iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), and other micronutrients are reported for specific crops and areas. When the soil cannot supply the level of nutrient required for adequate growth, supplemental fertilizer applications become necessary.

However, it is still much lower when compared with other countries of the world and highly unbalanced to produce enough and quality food to meet the country demand. The crop yields in countries using higher fertilizer rates (e.g. Korea, Japan China, Egypt etc) are two to three times more than Pakistan.  Prior to the introduction of fertilizes in Pakistan in the early 1950s, the use of fertilizers have increased significantly. Total consumption of nutrients in Pakistan has increased from 5 kg/ha in 1966-67 to 133 kg/ha in 2001-2002.

One of the factors responsible for stagnating yields and decreasing fertilizer use efficiency is the current unbalanced fertilizer use. Nutrient balances for many cropping systems are negative.

The nitrogen and phosphorus are the most limiting nutrients to crop production but their sufficient use by majority of the smallholder farmers become limiting due to their high costs. Indeed a substantial number of farmers do not use fertilizers and the ones who use fertilizers apply below the recommended rates.

In Pakistan various types of fertilizers are used, some are locally manufactured and others are imported. In our country, most of the fertilizer is used on irrigated wheat, cotton, sugarcane and rice crops.

On these crops the nitrogen application rate is close to 75-80 percent of the recommendations, compared with about 20-40 percent, depending on the crop, in the case of phosphate. Hardly 1-2 percent of farmers apply potash; that is usually applied to fruit, vegetable, and sugarcane crops only. Micronutrient deficiencies are common but less than five percent of the farmers apply micronutrient fertilizers.

There are several problems which are impeding the balance and efficient use of fertilizers. These are commonly non-availability of specific fertilizers at right time, ever-increasing prices, improper application methods and time, lack of knowledge among farmers about the need for balanced fertilizer applications, adulteration and inadequate grant of soft loans especially for the small farmers, costituting 75 per cent of our farming community.

The increase of fertilizer use efficiency is also related to ensuring the fertilizer quality. At present, apart from some macro fertilizers produced industrially, there are several mixed macro and micronutrient fertilizers, foliar fertilizers, plant growth stimulants which are not controlled by the government.

They are circulated with of fertilizer arbitration organizations, therefore the farmers are always suffering from losses once having bought the adulterated or low-quality fertilizers, and the legitimate fertilizer producers and traders suffer from losses and risks.
Balanced fertilization

Balanced fertilization is one of the most important tools to achieve maximum crop yield. Balanced fertilization can be defined as the rational use of fertilizers and manures for optimum supply of all essential nutrients for maximum crop yield which simultaneously ensures efficiency of fertilizer use promotes synergistic interactions and keeps antagonistic interactions out of the crop production system.

Fertilizers are not cheap and therefore, it is essential that they should be efficiently and effectively used to produce maximum increase in crop yields so that farmers receive the best possible outputs from their expenses.

Balanced fertilization does not mean a certain definite proportion of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash or other nutrients to be added in the form of fertilizer, but it has to take into account the availability of nutrients already present in the soil, crop requirement and other factors.

It should take into account the crop removal of nutrients, the economics of fertilizers and profitability, farmers’ ability to invest, agro-techniques, soil moisture regime, weed control, plant protection, seed rate, sowing time, soil salinity, alkalinity, physical environment, microbiological condition of the soil, cropping sequence, etc. It is not a state but a dynamic concept.

Balance fertilization is invariably the practice, which enable the farmers to approach practically realizable yield potentials in a cost effective and sustainable manner. Balanced fertilization enhances crop yield, crop quality and farm income; corrects soil nutrient deficiencies, and maintains soil fertility. Several field trials on balance fertilization have proved the yield improvement by 50-100 per cent.

According to a (NFDC; 1999) report, balanced use of fertilizers increased the yields of wheat by 77%, sugarcane 100%, rice 25-100% and cotton by 400%. To reap the benefits of balanced use of fertilizers, our farmers must implement the five key practices (a) apply only those nutrients that will result in economic yield increases (b) apply appropriate nutrient rates (c) apply appropriate sources of fertilizer nutrients (d) apply nutrients at appropriate timing (e) apply using the most effective and practical application techniques.

A balanced fertilization strategy is the only way to ensure a sustainable agriculture that can provide the world population with high quality food while minimizing the impact on the environment.

All available knowledge about the crop and the environment where it will be grown must be combined to set up the right combination of nutrients to be applied at each step of the fertilization program.

Among the programs of Ministry of Agriculture, the program of agricultural extension on fertilizers is considered a central one aiming at increasing fertilizer use efficiency, crop yield and agricultural product quality, stabilizing and enhancing the soil fertility.

But unfortunately, due to different reasons, due attention was not paid to this program. However, the following suggestions would be fruitful in promoting the balance use and proper management of fertilizers and increasing crop yields and soil fertility.

• Setting up a united network of agricultural extension on fertilizers with the participation of research institutes, agricultural universities, scientific associations and non-governmental organizations, fertilizer producing and trading companies.

• Surveying the current status of fertilizer use of farmers in all key agricultural areas in the whole country. The surveyed data will be processed to find out the advantages and shortcoming in fertilizer use for some main crops.

• Surveying the current status and capacity of fertilizer supply and service of governmental organizations, collective and private organizations, evaluating the supply capacity and requirement of each fertilizer kind at localities according to short- term and medium -term plants.

• Setting up the network of stable and long-term field experiment on some soil types for some crops in all agro-ecological zones in the whole country in order to exactly assess the nutrient supplying capacity of soils, factors limiting the fertilizer use efficiency (soils, climate and weather, management level, intellectual standard of the people…), direct and residual efficiency of main fertilizer to serve as a basis for establishing the formulae of reasonable fertilization.

• Setting up a network of field experiments to assess the environmental impacts of fertilizers, especially the impacts of fertilizers on soil fertility and agricultural product quality, besides, through this research system identifying the relationship between fertilizers and IPM.

• Organizing the training courses to provide the local extension workers with new knowledge and update new knowledge for them.

• Organizing the training for farmers on the role of each nutrient, symptoms of nutrient shortage and method of reasonable and efficient fertilizer through the farmer’s field schools using the most simple and effective methods.

• Organizing the information and propaganda on fertilizer use guides as well as introduction of new fertilizer through mass-media.

• Printing the fertilizer use guides. In the short term, apart from specific information, a new issue of agricultural extension on fertilizers can be carried out at the periodical of Pakistan Soil Science Society or the periodical of Department of Agriculture extension.

• Working out the regulations on fertilizer quality control aiming at preparing the fertilizer legislation.

• Carrying out the activities of cooperation on agricultural extension on fertilizers with in-country and foreign organizations as well as testing the efficiency of new fertilizers manufactured by in-country as well as foreign companies.

• Establishing the technical support fund to help the enthusiastic farmers having difficulties to form the key farmer class at the grassroots units.

• Developing the long-term human resource development program to improve qualifications of researchers and extension workers to PhD level and also provide for short-term trainings to equip them with knowledge and skills in important areas. Besides, career structure and incentive framework may be introduced to reward quality research and extension work.

Expected Outputs/Benefits

• The farmers provided with basis knowledge of fertilizer: Kind, composition, properties, method of storage, fertilizer use guide (not only for agricultural crops but also for forest trees).

• Agricultural output increase due to increase in crop yield.

• Agricultural product value increase due to increase in quality.

• Fertilizer cost for a product unit reduced, hard foreign currencies economized due to reasonable fertilizer use.

• Balanced fertilization reduces the incidence of plant diseases, such as red-leaf stem blight in cotton as found in various provinces of China. Natural improvements in the plant’s ability to resist disease infections result in less need for insecticides and fungicides, which lowers production costs for farmers and reduces chances for negative environmental impact.

• Environmental pollution protected due to decrease in gaseous nitrogen looses as well as nitrate loss by leaching.

• Soil fertility stabilized and enhanced.

In summary all embracing efforts should be made to educate farmers to practice balanced use of fertilizers. Of late, some fertilizer companies and associations have come forward to educate the villagers, publication of literature in regional languages related to balanced use of fertilizers for higher crop yields in a sustainable way. The actual time has come; the farmers, researchers and other related communities should come forward and act in this respect.

The chemical fertilizers are very expensive therefore, should be used judiciously and use manures along with chemical fertilizers for improving the crop yield and soil productivity in a sustainable way. Many more activities are being planned to promote the balanced use of fertilizers. And it is hoped that all these efforts would lead to desired awareness and as a result balanced fertilizer use would become a reality in near future.

BY Mohammad Ali Khaskheli