While presenting their interim budget (2024-25), India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the expansion of nano diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertiliser across all agro-climatic zones following the success of nano urea introduced in 2021. This initiative aims to lower the overall costs of urea and DAP — two of the most widely used fertilisers — while also reducing reliance on imported fertilisers.

Nanofertilisers emerge as a promising alternative to conventional urea and DAP, offering a viable blueprint for Pakistan to consider, particularly given the similarities between the agricultural sectors of both countries.

Pakistan’s population is growing annually at over twice the global rate — 1.9 per cent compared to 0.8pc according to World Bank data — posing a severe challenge to national food security. This challenge is further exacerbated by climate change, water shortages, shrinking per capita agricultural land, and lower crop yields compared to global averages.

Fertilisers contribute around 30 to 50pc to crop yields. Our soil is significantly deficient in nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium — all major crop nutrients — making fertiliser essential to improve crop yields.

Local production of nano urea and DAP could allow Pakistan to achieve self-sufficiency and reduce import dependency

However, according to the World Bank, Pakistan currently lags in fertiliser usage, applying only 157kg per hectare, compared to regional countries such as China (375 kg/ha), India (193 kg/ha), and Bangladesh (384 kg/ha).

In Pakistan, fertiliser application is grappling with two significant challenges at the farm level. First, there has been a sharp increase in fertiliser prices, particularly over the last two years, and to top it off, farmers often have to pay more than the notified prices due to fertiliser black marketing. As a result, during FY 2023 (July-March), the total offtake of fertilisers in the country decreased by 15pc, while the total availability of fertiliser declined by 11.2pc.

Furthermore, nutrient-use efficiency is very low as a large portion of urea either evaporates or leaches beyond the plant’s root zone, resulting in lower crop yields and environmental issues. Similarly, phosphorus from DAP becomes chemically bound to soil particles or reacts with soil minerals to form insoluble compounds that plants can’t readily absorb.

From a national perspective, Pakistan is already grappling with a high current account deficit. The substantial fertiliser imports — 401,000 tonnes of urea (6pc of total offtake) and 487,000 tonnes of DAP (41pc of total offtake) in 2022-2023 alone — required to meet domestic demand are further exacerbating this financial strain.

Beyond that, the government also provides subsidised gas to fertiliser plants. Still, it faces competing demands from the energy, industrial, and residential sectors, making it exceedingly difficult to manage, particularly given the dwindling domestic gas supplies.

In addition, under the International Monetary Fund programme, the government plans to withdraw the subsidies currently provided to the fertiliser sector. This move will further escalate fertiliser prices, adversely affecting efforts to achieve food security and self-sufficiency in agricultural production.

Given this context, it is imperative to enhance the effectiveness of fertilisers while also reducing their prices to ensure affordability for all farmers. Various initiatives, such as capacity building of farmers and the promotion of slow-release fertilisers, have been undertaken to date with a focus on increasing nutrient availability and uptake by plants. However, much more remains to be done to address the challenges effectively.

Nanofertilisers, a cost-effective and more efficient alternative to traditional fertilisers, are based on advanced nanotechnology and could solve all the above-mentioned challenges. The particle size of nanofertilisers is less than 100 nanometers, providing the advantage of high surface-volume ratio.

The nutrients required by plants are encapsulated in nano-scale particles, which enable them to penetrate easily either inside the seed surface (if applied at the seed stage) or through the stomata (microscopic openings or pores in leaves or stems). Such improved assimilation of the fertiliser by the plant system leads to better chlorophyll and higher photosynthetic efficiency, resulting in increased crop yields.

Nanofertilisers offer several additional advantages. They are primarily available in liquid form and applied via foliar methods on various crops, differing significantly from conventional urea and DAP, which are granular and typically packed in 50kg bags. This liquid form substantially reduces the space requirements for storage and transportation.

Additionally, they are cost-effective, as evidenced by the prevailing rates of nano DAP (500ml) in India, which is available at half the price of comparable conventional DAP (50kg), even when the latter is heavily subsidised.

However, experts opine that extrinsic factors such as organic matter, soil texture, soil pH, microbial activity, and temperature may affect the results of nanofertilisers. In Pakistan, soils generally have low organic matter content, but farmers can improve it by cultivating cover crops and green manure crops. Alternatively, compost made from farmyard manure, crop residues, and other organic waste can be added to the soil.

India’s largest fertiliser manufacturer, the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative, has announced plans to massively increase the production capacity of nanourea — under patent protection — and expand its exports to 25 countries. This initiative reflects a growing global interest in nanofertilisers, with several other countries also making concerted efforts to develop and promote them.

This trend presents new opportunities for Pakistan’s agriculture sector, which need to be capitalised on to address the impending food security challenge driven by climate change and population explosion. Through local production of nano urea and DAP, Pakistan is likely to achieve self-sufficiency, reduce import dependency, and deliver substantial benefits to farmers.

However, fertiliser companies, wielding billions in capital investments, are among the largest stakeholders affected by any new technology that impacts the sale of conventional fertilisers. It is imperative to acknowledge that new technologies and scientific advancements are inexorable forces driven by a convergence of economic, technological, and environmental factors. Thus, while delays may happen, the unstoppable momentum of innovation prevails.

Khalid Wattoo is a farmer and a development professional, and Dr Waqar Ahmad is a former Associate Professor at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 10th, 2024

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