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Part II. Synthesis of Asia and the Pacific region’s perspective on nutrient management and soil productivity

The 1996 World Food Summit established a strong linkage between Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development (SARD) and food security. SARD has identified sound management and use of available natural resources and the environment as both a prerequisite and a means of achieving the objective of food security.

The participants recognized that Asia and the Pacific region has the highest share of global land resources and at the same time the highest population. The participants, likewise, confirmed that many production areas in the region have been suffering from a rapid and continuous decline in the man-arable land ratio. This decline in productive land predisposes the remaining intensively-used farmlands to a high incidence of soil erosion and rapid decline in soil fertility, which altogether leads to a decline in the capacity of their natural resources to sustain their respective country’s future food needs.

Agriculture in the region has undergone notable transformations during the last four decades. The global success of the Green Revolution programme provided the initial global consciousness of the strategic value of making sustained improvements in the individual country’s food self reliance and likewise provided the foundation for the role of science and modern technologies in meeting present and future challenges.

Over the years, yield improvements were obtained through increased area of irrigated lands, development and use of improved varieties, and increased use of oil-based fertilizers. Asian cereal production registered more than a 260 percent increase from 386 million tonnes in year 1965 to 1 009 thousand tonnes in year 2004, with similar trends for other agricultural commodities. Furthermore, the region’s average yield of paddy rice doubled from 2.0 t/ha in 1965 to 4.1 t/ha in 2004, while that of wheat more or less tripled from 0.97 t/ha to 2.87 t/ha.

The increasing competition between farming and urbanization for use of agricultural land creates the condition for a paradigm shift to the conscious campaign to develop and promote the awareness that Integrated Plant Nutrient Management System as a national, regional and global strategy to combat loss of farm productivity is a profitable investment for sustainable rural livelihood, food security and the environment.

In recent years, gains in technology-driven crop production were challenged and threatened by the increasing pressure from the external environment, extreme climate changes and global oil market situation and its impact on cost and availability of Urea, the most preferred fertilizer by small farmers in the region. The last decades were marked by research and development of new super-hybrids, environment-friendly pest and disease management, introduction of better use of fertilizers and increased investment in irrigation development. However, a parallel event in the form of an inceasing incidence of regional drought and flooding as well as increasing deforestation and use of fragile marginal lands jointly contributed to an accelerated erosion and massive loss in soil organic matter in Asia and the Pacific region. Furthermore, in recent years and perhaps in unforeseen periods into the future, the unstable global oil situation and its direct impact on the doubling of the cost of inorganic fertilizers, particularly that of Urea, shall be the dominant barrier to the sustainability of food and agricultural production, incomes and livelihood of small, vulnerable poor farmers in the region.

The dramatic improvements in yields in many Asia and Pacific countries have, likewise, led to larger problems of soil nutrient mining, aggravated by the fact that this complex process of soil fertility loss remained unknown to many farmers and local field extension technicians. Soil nutrient mining is a phenomenon where the withdrawal of nutrients by crops exceeds the combined external nutrient supply and the mobilization of soil nutrients, which over time results in the exhaustion of native soil nutrient reserves and induction of deficiencies in some micronutrients. These situations have had large impacts on the incomes of small, poor farmer’s, which has definitely translated into a decline in their capacity to continue the adoption of modern agricultural production technologies. If soil nutrient mining is not addressed properly and immediately, serious impairment of soil productivity will result in irreversible soil degradation and permanent loss of income, which altogether will greatly weaken farm-level self-reliance and national capacities for food self-sufficiency.

Fertilizer subsidies resulted in increased fertilizer importation and utilization and dramatic increases in country’s production of cereals and other food crops. However, even as the country enjoyed the bonanza of low cost fertilizers and the consequent improvement in food security, researchers noted a continuing decline in soil fertility and yield increments and increasing requirements of fertilizers per unit area, including a phenomenal loss in soil productivity and deterioration of water quality.

The general trend in fertilizer importation in most Asia and Pacific countries indicated a general preference for Urea and very minimal for Potash. Senior scientists from India indicated that this is because Urea is the preferred and main source of nitrogen because it is cheaper, easily available and provides rapid response. They further provided information on the increased nutrient gap where nutrient exports, in the form of farm products consumed as food medicine and other products, exceed the net nutrient imports in the form of applied fertilizers.

The widening gap between the withdrawal of soil nutrients to produce food and the provision of fertilizer supplements to prevent the total depletion of native soil nutrients is becoming an important common concern in Asia and the Pacific region. This situation is highly relevant, critical and time sensitive since the only and perhaps the quickest alternative mitigation measure to compensate for the decline and loss of arable land is the sustained development and provision of yield improving technologies, such as early-maturing hybrids and irrigation, which encourage huge and fast withdrawal of soil nutrient reserves in short periods. When soil nutrient and fertilization management is faulty in these time-sensitive yield improvement initiatives, there are serious negative consequences on the terrestrial and coastal environment and long-term food production programme. Over time, the unabated loss of soil fertility will trigger the silent and undetected process of desertification and eventually lead to the total and irreversible loss of land productivity and population carrying capacity in the region.

The inadequate management of applied nutrients has also created an undesirable flow of nutrients, with most of the unuse fraction released to the rivers, groundwater, lakes and other freshwater bodies or released to the air in gaseous forms contributing to air pollution. At the farm household level, the cost-benefit of farm input has declined. At the national and regional level, the plant nutrient balance has been negatively affected and so has the food production potential.

The common barriers to sustainability of food security efforts in the region, including countries with successful food production programmes such as Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam, are summarized below:

Participants clearly showed a regional convergence regarding policy and technical measures to combat the decline in soil fertility and food supplying capacity of agricultural lands. Scientists in the region are in common agreement on the need for the efficient and balanced use of nutrients by plants and the need to apply scientific measures to ensure that soil fertility is sustained while engaging farmers to improve their yields through the use of short maturing, proper water management and use of IPM.

Despite complex differences in sies of population, socio-economic conditions and land areas, scientific communities, land use policy-makers and practitioners in Asia-Pacific countries have committed themselves to strengthening regional cooperation and national capacities to develop a more rational integrated approach to nutrient and natural resources management and sustainable land management that link food production with rural livelihood, environmental protection and biological diversity improvement. In terms of combating problems of declining production and yields among small poor farmers, Asia-Pacific countries have adopted a common approach, albeit with differing efficiency and success, involving organic-based fertilization following balance fertilization principles and methods.

In response to the global search for cost-effective fertilization measures, farm waste recycling and accelerated compost production, the oldest yet relevant alternative technologies have become the region’s consensus for the convergence of socially acceptable cost reduction measures that help stabilize soil productivity, farm income and livelihood of poor farming communities in Asia and the Pacific region.

While some Asia-Pacific countries are at the crossroads to industrialization, agriculture generally remained steadfast as the region’s primary industry to combat growing population and food security needs and environmental degradation. China and India, for instance, which have both the largest land area and population in the region and have moved successfully towards urban development and industrialization, still consider agriculture the primary area of development and investment. In the recent years, China, along with most Asia-Pacific countries, has mobilized its scientific communities to address concerns about Integrated Nutrient Management to support sustainable agricultural development for food security and securing rural areas against the vagaries of global and national economic development.

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