Small-scale farmer on Chemical Fertilizer Use: not transitioned to Agroecology to promote food security and environmental conservation

Ulego Silver spraying 3 weeks cabbage plants on his farm, photo by Sharon Muzaki

African soils are known to be one of the oldest soils on the planet. First because of the temperatures we live in, in the tropics, soils grow old so fast. So this means they need to be replenished. What bothers us and what we should be afraid of is that many people, instead of feeding the soil, want to quickly get returns by feeding only the crops. So there is a difference between soil fertility and plant nutrition and what many farmers do is plant nutrition by feeding crops on inorganic fertilizers.

In regards, Climate change is making it harder to grow enough nutritious food to adequately feed our planet’s population. Temperature increases, rainfall pattern shifts, reduced water availability, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are all impacting agricultural productivity.

This is now evident in the West Nile sub-region, Obongi district in Northern Uganda where small-scale farmers have resorted to the use of inorganic fertilizers to grow different crops amidst climate change challenges like long drought seasons that usually affect the region.

A small-scale farmer in Uganda explains why he has not yet made his transition to organic and is unaware of the importance of price premiums, environmental stewardship, health concerns related to antibiotic and pesticide use, and personal values.

As a result, he hasn’t begun using practices that emphasize soil health and biodiversity and has continued using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on his farms.

Ulego Silver a lead small-scale farmer of the Eku Farmers Group

Ulego Silver is a lead farmer of the Eku farmers group from Palorinya West, Obongi district. He owns 1.5 acres of land where he grows vegetables like cabbages, green peppers, and eggplants. Currently, he has planted cabbages but has been forced to continue using chemicals (inorganic fertilizers) to facilitate quick growth due to the changing seasons where farmers are experiencing longer dry spells.

“I use 5 different chemicals like Kara and NPK among others at different stages right from nursery bed to the last stages before harvesting. For example, I used NPK for top dressing and I will make sure I reapply it every two weeks for optimum leaf and healthy growth,” he says

“I believe that when I use the chemicals, I will get big harvests compared to when I don’t where cabbages are small. When I apply chemicals, I usually harvest 7 to 8 kilograms (kgs) of cabbage sizes, and without them, I will only get 3 kgs.  I need big yields to make enough money and I’m not using organic fertilizers like cow dung because I don’t have the animals,” the small-scale farmer admitted on why he has insisted on using the chemicals

Chemical fertilizers he uses to spray the cabbages

Ulego says that seasons started changing way back in 2010 when farmers were planting crops in both seasons until 2022 when seasons changed to longer dry spells and now farmers prefer the second because crops perform better in this season.

‘‘Lately, we haven’t received enough rainfall but there is this first season this year where things were really bad and we suffered a lot because we expected rains in February but had them on the 2nd or 3rd day of May. So most farmers like me cannot avoid these fertilizers because of the changing seasons since we are worried whether the rain is going to be sufficient.”

IFOAM – Organics International sights out organic benefits for climate and biodiversity where the systemic approach of organic farming contributes to climate mitigation, supports the adaptation of farmers to the consequences of climate change, and increases the resilience of farming systems while protecting and enhancing biodiversity.

Common practices in organic farming, such as crop rotations and using organic fertilizer, and the fact that organic farmers refrain from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

An infographic showing many other benefits of organic agriculture for climate and biodiversity by IFOAM 

Why are small-scale farmers not adopting agroecology?

Charles Opiyo, a Resilient Livelihood Manager, at Oxfam Uganda, thinks that small-scale farmers not adopting agroecology is not because they don’t want to or they’re not willing. However, the term agroecology is being understood in technical terms which makes people think that farmers are not practicing. “But I think if there are people who are behind and can be pro-agroecology are the farmers, the challenge is the breaking of the concept into simple terms for them to understand. But if you break it, you’ll find that several practices and technologies that the farmers are already doing are lined with several principles of agroecology,” According to Opiyo, there is no resistance from the farmers but instead, there is a lot of willingness to practice agroecology.

Opiyo also thinks that Uganda’s liberalization, the issue of privatization, where the market builds this free market economy, capitalism, and everyone has a more profit-oriented kind of interest is what is driving everybody. “For example, labor used to be generally available and almost free where someone could just slaughter a chicken or a cock to mobilize his friends to come and help him with opening the garden or weeding. But right now, everything is supposed to be paid for. So it becomes very expensive for an ordinary farmer to keep hiring labor for every simple step of any agronomic operations and looking at the cost of acquiring those kinds of chemicals becomes easier and cheaper.”

He calls for awareness creation to target consumers because the chemicals that are being used are precursors to cancer. “Let’s start with the market sensitizing the consumer so that they can drive the production because their demands will inform production. Also, we need to amplify the ways for the government to do proper regulation but I think consumers can influence several things including policies.”

The dangers of Inorganic Fertilizer Use on Soil and Human Health

Edward Mukiibi of Slow Food Uganda explains in detail that these fertilizers are made out of chemical compounds from fossil fuels like petroleum, which not only damage the environment but also the soil. Feeding inorganic fertilizers to the soil not only gives direct nutrients to the crops but also affects the soil structure and soil chemistry.

“Many times the chemical fertilizers we use affect the biology of the soil because many of them bring up high levels of acidity especially when they react with water. This is one of the biggest effects where farmers use a lot of inorganic fertilizers without rebuilding the soil with compost/organic fertilizers causing the soil to break down and making crop production fail even if they continue using a lot of fertilizers. It doesn’t make economic sense to completely depend on inorganic fertilizers,” he explains

“So farmers in Africa especially in Uganda, where we are crossed by the equator, are advised to use compost which is an organic fertilizer, it releases nutrients slowly but steadily and also improves the biology of the soil like it fits the earthworms and other important organisms, but also it acts as a store for water making soils not to grow old so fast. That is why it’s important to focus and concentrate on the use of organic fertilizers,” he advised

Mukiibi says that when it comes to plant health, research has shown that vegetables and livestock pastures that are grown using organic fertilizers have more concentrations of vitamins and other nutrients than those that are produced with inorganic fertilizers. Therefore, these are chemical compounds and excessive use can lead to toxicity levels in the edible parts of the plant, many of which have traces of lead in them. “This is another alarm we need to raise when it comes to our nutrition and health if we need to improve dietary nutrition and diversity, and the health of the people with the crops provided by horticultural farmers. We need to incorporate and transition towards the use of organic fertilizers and reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers,” he adds

Recent research has shown that excessive use of inorganic fertilizers made out of fossil fuels especially the carriers increases the level of heavy metal concentration in many soils like lead, and cadmium are known to be carcinogenic and to cause cancer. This is also something to worry about for those who are using excessive amounts of inorganic fertilizers are not only damaging the soil structure but they’re also indirectly and sometimes directly contributing to the sicknesses that affect many people in the market today.

“ So that’s why if someone is using inorganic fertilizers in countries where there are many regulations, they have maximum doses they can apply it and now the world is moving away from this toxicity, a lot of corporations that have invested money in the inorganic fertilizer business and are shifting to Africa because our regulations are weak. And also they think that Africans are desperate to eat more and more unhealthy food. Our policymakers should be aware that we need policies to regulate the use of chemical fertilizers. We need policies to regulate the management of soils. Also, we need to focus on soil health if we want to have a good healthy population,” Mukiibi pointed out

Farmers are now planting Genetically Modified Seeds

John Lodungokol, Assistant Commissioner of Crop Production at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries Uganda, says that farmers are going in for inorganic fertilizer use because it is talk of all the farmers, commercial farmers who are dealing in the cash crops and the number of crops, traditional and indigenous crops especially when they’re given genetically modified crops where they attach the inorganic fertilizer to them.

Most of the seeds that are provided to farmers have been infiltrated more by GMO seeds, and none other than organic and indigenous seeds, which are like farmers-based-managed seeds. Farmers get interested just because there is now availability of a lot of fertilizer use. And yet, they should have done a lot of observation to say that some of their land is still virgin and not utilized and still fertile. Eventually, land that has done a lot of monoculture requires fertilizer but should have been organic fertilizer and organic practices, rather than inorganic.

“So again, this is misinformation to the farmers that we need a lot of creation, mobilization, awareness to the farmers so that they can change from that traditional thinking into modern thinking of saying they have everything with them, “they say in extension, go to the farmers with what they have, help them to help themselves”. They already have the property and the commodities and everything including organic fertilizer like cow dung, and it’s only processing them to bow so that they can utilize it very well into active and over yielding fertilizers.”

Lodungokol says that the government has not done a lot of regulatory frameworks for this specifically to regulate the suppliers of fake chemicals into the country. There must have been a regulatory mechanism to filter out who are genuine and who are not genuine suppliers. Somehow farmers get anything without knowledge that this is a fake fertilizer and in the end, all this is with the farmers. There’s a lot to do to promote proper agricultural practices.

Small farmers are faced with challenges like population increase, and climate change, among others

According to the African Climate Awareness Report 2023, most Africans (60%) trust or believe that governmental initiatives aimed at mitigating climate change, are being pursued primarily to benefit the environment. August 2022 to April 2023, saw a decline in Uganda, from 69% to 60%, which was significant, and suggested a drop in belief that the actions of government or organizations are being pursued in the interest of the environment but rather for more “selfish” reasons.

Simon Bukenya, a programs officer at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) discussed climate change as the biggest crisis we have in the world today. In terms of agriculture, it is very important to make sure that we talk about it, devise means how we can adapt to the crisis for Africa as a continent, which is more impacted within its agriculture systems, we need to address it as soon as we can.

According to Bukenya, Africa’s farmers, especially the small-scale farmers are looking for ways to adapt to the crisis to produce more food, create sustainability for their families and communities, and also create a livelihood for themselves. However, there are so many challenges that they face like population increase which comes with scarcity of land for cultivation, and agriculture. But we can’t do away with population growth, because it’s a factor of the world and a natural issue.

He also says that there is also the false narrative around agriculture whereby they say Africa cannot feed itself anymore yet Africa has the largest land in the world. But the narrative is being driven by multinational corporations that are extremely rich from the Global North.

Therefore this wrong narrative fronts synthetic fertilizers, and hybrid seeds that if you turn on your radio station to hear any advertisement on agriculture, it will be around conventional agriculture, not traditional agriculture/agroecology.

“These people have so much money that they’re using the media to change people’s mindsets. “If you went to the village, even an 80-year-old man will now be like if I don’t use synthetic fertilizers in my garden, I won’t get yields. So the narrative has been changing over time and has been sponsored by large money corporations. That is one aspect that we can’t rule out because narrative change is very important using media.”

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Agroecology only gets 2% of the funding from Development Organizations like The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO and the other goes to conventional Agriculture.

He also hints at so much land degradation in Africa right now because everyone is trying to set up a structure on the small land that they have and there’s so much urbanization and the urban population growing so fast that the population cannot feed itself without the rural population.

“So what are they doing? They are looking at shunning agriculture and doing all the other economic activities. In so doing, there is no food but have to go to supermarkets which are too expensive for them even in local markets right now food is expensive because there’s limited food production.”

“If you look at the obesity rates in the Global North, it’s increasing now and again. In Africa, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are leading because they’ve been infiltrated by fast food. However, we have to look at the politics of all of this and the policy is very important if the policy favors its nationals, then they should be fronting means of production that are favorable for even the lowest of all farmers the small-scale farmers,” Bukenya notes

He continues to say that Uganda is just in the process of actually finalizing the agroecology framework which is not yet done. However, it has been working with some civil society organizations to make sure that this framework is put into place.

“And that is a win for Uganda because if you look at our neighbors not just East Africa, but the whole of Africa. Uganda’s agriculture is still a bit organic and not infiltrated but if you look at Kenya which Okayed the GMOs and synthetic fertilizers, our borders are porous which means that anytime they will come into Uganda, so we need a very strong policy and I wish that agroecology policy speaks to that,” he insists

The government of Uganda has drafted the Agroecology framework to scale up Agroecology in Uganda

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Uganda, Hon. Fred Bwino Kyakulaga while at the 5th National Agroecology Actors’ Symposium (NAAS) said that as a government they have done several things that demonstrate recognition of agroecology through research spearheaded by the National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO)

“We have been directing our efforts towards improving and conserving agricultural biodiversity and promotion of farmer-managed seed systems which is critical in promoting agroecology,” he said

“We’re trying to operationalize the National Community Gene Bank which is provided for in the National Seed Policy of 2018. This is one of the avenues of ensuring that we improve and conserve agricultural biodiversity and as a ministry, we have been trying to ensure that we have a supportive policy framework. This is a policy, legal, and regulatory framework”

“My ministry together with nonstate actors, including Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM), and Eastern and Southern Africa Small-scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF) Uganda among others embarked on the process of developing the National Agroecology strategy as one of the moves towards having a supportive policy and legal framework in place. Of course, we have not moved very far but you should have been informed that as we talk, we have a draft of the National Agroecology Strategy, he admitted.

He assures members of the Agroecology fraternity of the government’s efforts towards advancing efforts for scaling up agroecology for sustainable food systems, and transformation in the face of climate change.

In 2019, the Uganda Government approved the National Organic Agriculture Policy (NOAP) to harness the country’s organic agriculture potential by ensuring a regulated sub-sector contributing to national development. The mission of the organic policy is to support investments in the entire organic agriculture value chain for inclusiveness, enhanced livelihoods, production, and environmental sustainability.

In conclusion

Habits die hard. Transitioning requires new knowledge and confidence in new solutions. This can be promoted farmer-to-farmer by sharing and demonstrating best practices and results. There is also a need to develop markets for agroecological products and expand access to markets for organic food, where price premiums can also motivate farmers. Extension services also need to be upgraded with new solutions and knowledge.

This article is supported by ESAFF UGANDA




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