Despite the industry’s claims of record fertiliser production in 2021, the Rabi urea off-take season witnessed a supply and pricing crisis putting the national food security at stake.

While farmers see smuggling and hoarding as the reasons behind urea shortage, the industry blames panic buying and interruption in the supply of natural gas, a major ingredient in urea manufacturing, for the disaster. Other factors may be manageable but, perhaps, not gas supplies because the reserves of fossil fuel are fast depleting in the country.

Many stakeholders believe it is time that those at the helm of affairs begin finding alternative methods to produce urea other than natural gas to meet future fertiliser needs.

“Lack of natural gas may be a significant issue today but it is not the end of fertiliser. A new vision is required that looks at alternative means to meet this need,” says Fouad Bajwa, an agriculture expert. There are modern innovative methods where Western countries lacking natural gas reserves have used solar-powered electrolyzers in which they split water into oxygen and hydrogen to be combined with nitrogen to create ammonia, while the US is using corncobs to create alternative fertiliser for countering the falling availability of natural gas.

Calling for deregulating the fertiliser industry to allow new players to experiment with alternative means of fertiliser production, he says a European company, Yara, is installing a 24-megawatt pilot electrolyzer plant at Porsgrunn in Norway with a capacity of producing 20,500 tonnes of ammonia per year forming the basis for 60,000-80,000 tonnes of fossil-free mineral fertiliser.

Urea worth Rs232bn was used in 2021 in the country and of this 30pc — worth around Rs70bn — evaporated into the air as ammonia

“Yara could have their fertiliser in Pakistan like other parts of the world by the end of this year,” he hopes, pointing out that the step will also help combat climate challenges by preventing emissions caused due to the use of fossil fuels.

There are options available with the farmers to get rid of the urea manufacturing mafia only if the government supports in finding solutions to the issue, says Dr Zubair Aslam of Department of Agronomy, University of Agriculture Faisalabad. Ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate may be used as alternative chemical sources of nitrogen, whereas many organic matters like composted manure, legume hay and field hay also contain high amounts of nitrogen. Likewise, there are cheap alternatives available for phosphorus fertiliser (diammonium phosphate or DAP), fearing that 50 per cent of the DAP being marketed is spurious or adulterated.

Prof Dr Muhammad Yaseen from the Institute of Soil & Environmental Sciences of Faisalabad Agriculture University endorses the views saying it is a turning point for scientists, farmers and the government as they can invent, adopt and promote new approaches to the use of fertiliser and find alternative compost. But, he questions, where will the investment come from to try the alternative methods of producing urea.

“The new technology will require investment worth billions of rupees and a sufficient period. In the meantime, when gas is also available as the cheapest source, there is a need for improving the efficiency of the fertiliser applied.”

He claims that around 30pc of the urea applied through the practice in vogue among the farming community is lost immediately. This loss can be prevented by a week-long training of farmers in new fertiliser application techniques that cost no more than Rs100 per bag of compost. Urea worth Rs232 billion was used in 2021 in the country as per figures given by the industry. Of this 30pc worth around Rs70bn evaporated into the air as ammonia, Prof Yaseen says. Similarly, DAP worth Rs372bn was consumed during the year and of it, a major amount of it remained in the soil and did not reach the plants due to poor application of the compost. He also calls for a holistic approach by planning for the availability of the fertiliser throughout the year instead of taking it crop-by-crop.

Former Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) chief Dr Kauser Abdullah Malik does not agree that urea alternatives will be costlier. He says that PARC scientists had prepared bio-fertilisers and successfully tested them by the mid-1990s and are still in use but in a limited area. He says that the economical bio-fertilisers could not be popularised because neither the public nor private stakeholders in the agriculture sector adopted and promoted them for certain reasons.

The agriculture extension departments of the provinces should at least disseminate knowledge among the farming community about the bio-fertilisers so that the growers start thinking of urea alternatives that are more beneficial for the soil and environment and are not a burden on the pocket of the community.

Dr Shahid Mansoor, the director of the National Institute of Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering (NIGBE), says his institute is trying to bring together chemical and bio-fertiliser sectors for the benefit of all. He says as the chemical fertiliser industry has had a vast marketing network it could be utilised for the promotion of bio-compost too. He says that bio and chemical fertilisers both can be applied in a field to get better results.

The NIGBE, he says, has successfully tested bio-fertilisers for cotton fields in three Punjab districts — Khanewal, Lodhran and Bahawalpur — and presently it is working with some local and foreign textile industrialists for the production of organic cotton with the use of bio-fertiliser in Balochistan. At least 35,000 organic cotton bales were harvested from Balochistan last season.

Like in the case of chemicals, he says, multiple bioproducts may also be developed to meet a variety of needs — some want purely organic farm products and others a mix of the tw.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 24th, 2022

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