July 21, 2022

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Long-term plan for fertilizer industry needed

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s plan to secure cheaper fertilizer from other countries would help lower agricultural production costs, but the government should come up with a long-term plan to help boost the competitiveness of the domestic fertilizer industry, experts said.

“The main advantage of cheaper fertilizer from bilateral deals is potentially moderating production costs and saving on foreign exchange,” Sonny A. Africa, executive director of research group Ibon Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“This should just be a short-term lifeline though and the long-term approach should be to develop a domestic fertilizer industry, especially in organic fertilizers, as part of an overall plan for food self-sufficiency,” he added.

Earlier this week, Mr. Marcos said he would reach out to China, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates to secure cheaper fertilizer through government-to-government deals.

The state’s move is in response to insufficient local fertilizer supply, said Leonardo A. Lanzona, who teaches economics at the Ateneo de Manila University.

“The issue is that the fertilizer industry here is not efficient enough to supply the fertilizer demand in the country,” he said in a Messenger chat.

Allowing the government to import more fertilizer through bilateral deals would force local fertilizer producers to boost the quality of their products, he said.

“By raising the level of efficiency from these imports, the fertilizer industry here should learn to be more competitive,” he added.

Raul Q. Montemayor, national manager of the Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives, Inc. said the move “should have been done much earlier by the previous administration.”   

“A little bit late now for the current crop because farmers have already started planting,” he said in a Viber message. “But if they can bring in the fertilizer in a few months, it can be used for late planting or for the next crop that will be harvested early next year.”

Russia is the largest global exporter of fertilizer. Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine have affected shipments of fertilizer around the world.

“We expect a tight fertilizer supply until next year,” Mr. Montemayor said.

Worried about how the government will “fund and handle” the supply from other countries, Mr. Montemayor said the government should consider partnerships with the private sector.

“They may have to link up with the private sector which can provide the needed logistics,” he said.

Mr. Montemayor noted that the only fertilizer the Philippines “used to produce” was ammonium sulfate. This was produced at Philippine Phosphate Fertilizer Corp.’s plant in Leyte.

“However, I think the plant stopped its operations after it was hit by Yolanda,” he said, referring to the supertyphoon that hit the Philippines in 2013. “Even then, I think we were importing most of the sulfate that was used in the plant.”

“For oil-based fertilizer, we have no capacity to produce our own, so we have to import,” he added.

Unstable fertilizer prices due to global shocks should nudge the government and the agriculture sector to pursue alternative ways to boost crops, said Arnold Padilla, a program coordinator at the Pesticide Action Network – Asia Pacific.

“When global fertilizer prices have been skyrocketing, the more we need to look for ways that veer away from too much dependence on imported inputs, even if they are done through bilateral government deals,” he said in a Messenger chat. 

“We should look for ways to improve local production in a more sustainable way such as through agroecology and less dependence on chemical, much less, imported inputs.” 

Mr. Padilla said the transition to agroecology would not be easy and could “take time.”  “But it should be the general direction. At the minimum, while in transition, the necessary step is to lessen dependence on imports.”

Mr. Montemayor, who represents a group of farmers, said the government should expand the country’s production of substitutes that can improve soil quality, such as organic fertilizer, organic soil ameliorants, fermented extracts and plant nutrients. 

“This will take some time because the Department of Agriculture has always been promoting the use of inorganic inputs,” he said. “We should complement these with proper soil testing, so that we know what types and quantities of fertilizer are needed in specific areas. There are also technologies that help rejuvenate the soil.”