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The fertile plain

(article, Krystle Chung)

In early December, the New York Times ran an article about how the impoverished African country of Malawi was suddenly growing healthier crops than ever before. The shocking secret? Fertilizer.

As we’ve pointed out on Culinate, dirt and water alone aren’t enough for healthy plants; they need nutrients. And that’s also the conclusion of an article, written way back in 2000, by a soil scientist named William Albrecht; it’s available on the website of Acres USA, a magazine dedicated to sustainable agriculture.

The article, titled “The Drought Myth,” focuses on the idea that droughts cause crop disasters. According to Albrecht, drought does cause the upper parts of soils to dry out, encouraging plant roots to grow deeper in search of water. The deeper they go, however, the fewer nutrients are available. Once that happens, water's not the limiting factor anymore. Now the plants are hungry, not thirsty.

But if farmers fertilize far down into the soil, then drought is less of a threat. To back up his point, Albrecht cites data from a research farm in Missouri during the summer drought of 1953. Plants growing in unfertilized soil used up 14 inches of water and yielded 18 bushels per acre. Plants growing in fertilized soil, however, used only two more inches of water and produced a whopping 79 bushels per acre. 

One question remains, however: What kind of fertilizer goes into that soil? The New York Times_ article on Malawi didn’t say what the locals were tilling into their fields, although the accompanying photographs showed large bags of fertilizer being unloaded. Compost and other organic fertilizers, obviously, are more environmentally friendly than inorganic chemical derivatives. But farmers have to start somewhere.