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Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas: Essential elements

02 March 2016

Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, Senior Manager, Social Responsibility, and Executive Director, The Mosaic Company Foundation:

I would like all of you to imagine a world where everyone has enough food to eat, especially smallholder farmers and their families. I would like you to imagine a world where the smallholder farmers are able to get the nutrition that they need from the food that they eat and their soils, especially for children, and a world where the farmers are able to have access to the knowledge and the information to be able to make their business operations successful. This is a vision of increasing prosperity and health, one where it feels like good is building upon good and it is an upwards spiral. This world that I am describing is not a dream, it actually can be a reality, but what has to happen is for some things to change. The actual reality that smallholders face is a world of a downward spiral; there are continual challenges of hopelessness, feeling alone and uneducated and disconnected from the supply chain. The reality for smallholders is that they live on less than a hectare of land and are struggling to feed their families. The reality for a smallholder is that there are enormous challenges, some of them with their own individual plot of land and some of them with the market forces that are around them.

What I want to do today is to help you realize that the challenges for a smallholder farmer do not have to stay as challenges because there are opportunities that are there to help them, but those opportunities need to be focused so these farmers can find the upward spiral. I work for the Mosaic Company. We are the world's largest combined producer and manufacturer of concentrated potash and phosphate. Those are two out of the three crop nutrients that plants need and, if you do not know what a crop nutrient is, it is fertilizer. Fertilizers have a tremendous potential to be able to transform entire villages and pull farmers out of poverty. The challenge is that we have to be able to work with the smallholders to make that happen. Fertilizers when they are given the right access to it and the right training and best management practices can close yield gaps. Today what I want us to do is to spend some time visiting some farmers in Guatemala, India and Africa, and along the way we will talk about what are the opportunities that exist, the vision for smallholders to be able to succeed.

The first that I want to do is talk about a vision where smallholders actually have the understanding that fertilizer is a combination of various different elements and that different elements are all needed in different combinations to feed different plants. Right here what you see is a subsection of the overall periodic table of elements. The periodic table of elements: there are 17 elements that are needed for plants as food, there are macro and micronutrients and other kinds of products but overall what a smallholder farmer does not realize is that these are using combination that is fertilizer but what we think of is that fertilizer is one product. What happens when farmers realize this, that it is only one product, they end up not knowing what they are purchasing. For example, in Guatemala there is a product called Super 15, Super 15 has 15 units of macronutrients in it but there is not anything about Super 15 that is super; Super 15 means that there is a limited number of nutrients in there but to be a creditable fertilizer it should have 30 macronutrients. What smallholders do though when they go into purchase they fertilizer is they will use what is called the optical price, they will see what the price is and, if it less, to have that Super 15 – which is mostly filler – they will end up purchasing that instead of buying more nutrient-rich products.

If you look at Africa, one of the challenges there is fertilizer quality. The big challenge is that anybody can blend fertilizer and often they do, and they will turn fake products into fertilizer, grind up bread brick because it looks like myriad of potash, take sand because it looks like aluminium sulphate, and they will present it as fertilizer to farmers. Often what can happen also in Africa is there are tremendous amounts of abuses in the sales channel: bags that are unmarked, underweight bags, bags that have inner products and also ineffective products in them. What you have is that agro dealers who are doing the right thing and are blending the right group of nutrients together, cannot compete because ultimately what farmers will look for is whatever has the lowest price. These are farmers who are at the bottom of that spiral.

The second item that I want to talk about – another vision for smallholders – is how they can actually learn about balanced crop nutrition because that will help them maximize their yields and also help them to be able to be effective in using all the nutrient's in their soil. When there is a balanced crop nutrition for a plant, the plant is healthier, it is able to produce more yields, it uses all the nutrients that it is given more effectively; it is able to fight drought, pests and disease, and plants are more apt to use the nutrients and water that is available to them when they have this balanced crop nutrition. But what happens is when soils are mined from the plants, nutrients are pulled out; they need to be put back in the right combination. Soil tests can figure out how to make that happen. But the reality for a smallholder is that they do not realize that there are a lot of options, a lot of needs for plants, that there are nutrients needed.

What happens is that smallholders end up applying whatever products are given to them. Often what happens is politicians will give away fertilizer as a political favour and what will happen is that it will just have one nutrient in it typically because it was inexpensive – probably has some filler – and what ends up happening is that farmers are trusting politicians to buy their fertilizer. We all know that politicians are not known for their agronomic skills. What also happens in many geographies is that smallholder farmers are faced with trying to figure out how they can learn about these issues. So we have some projects going on where we are actually working with smallholder farmers and we are making it so that they are receiving the education that they need. We have partnerships and two different geographies that are doing specific work reaching out to smallholder farmers.

In India for example we are working with the smallholder farmers to be able to give them the agronomic that they need about balanced crop nutrition. When a farmer knows this, they have been successful. In this picture, the picture of Kasim in India, and Kasim is attending farmer meetings and he has said directly to us that because I was able to go to farm demonstrations and see the important of balanced crop nutrition I was able to take that knowledge back to my farm and be able to increase my income. This is an example of a farmer who is at the top of the spiral.

The other vision for smallholder farmers is to be able to learn the importance of nutrient stewardship. Nutrient stewardship is basically helping farmers learn a number of four Rs: this right source – which is really the right combination of nutrients, the right formula, the right rate, how much you apply at a certain time, the right time, when you are applying it, when plants are actually uptaking nutrients and the right place – where do you place this on a field? When the four Rs are used together farmers are able to take that knowledge and make sure that they are increasing their yields because their plants are getting the nutrients that they need, and they are not having those nutrients run-off to waterways, but the reality for a smallholder farmer is that no-one ever tells them how to apply their fertilizer.

We are having projects that we are working on right now with the Segal Foundation in India and HELPS International in Guatemala, where we are helping smallholder farmers learn how they can actually advance and use their nutrient's in the right way. For example, we have agronomists that are doing training of technicians that are going out into the rural highlands of Guatemala. These farmers are able to learn that all you need is a small bottle cap of fertilizer put in a hole next to the seed and when that is there you cover it with soil and you are ready. But farmers to not know how to do this on their own, someone has to train them. Farmers that have been able to access this kind of knowledge, they are at the top of that spiral.

The fourth vision that I want to share with you about smallholder farmers is that when they have knowledge they are able to realize that they can close the yield gaps for their family and that they can achieve their own food security. By 2050 there are going to be nine billion people in the world, we have another two billion people coming; with the current use of fertilizer in agricultural production, 50 per cent of that can be attributed to the use of fertilizer. When fertilizer is used it has also led to sustainable intensification, that the amount of cropland that we have is being used more efficiently, In 1960 one hectare fed two people; by 2025 it is predicted that one hectare will feed 25 people.

It is important that we realize that the land that we have that is arable right now has to be maximized; we have to grow more on the same amount of land that we have so new land is not pulled into production and conservation can happen. The part of how that can happen is with fertilizer use. Sustainable intensification though is not a reality for smallholders; the reality is that they cannot even realize how to make their current land productive. If you take a Guatemalan farmer and you realize how they have been able to learn to farm throughout the years, it is based on law, it is not based on science, it has been passed on from generations, but when we are working with smallholder farmers we have been able to take them from where they are to where they can be. A smallholder farmer right now in Guatemala, in the highlands, on land that looks like this, they grow about one metric ton per hectare; what they need to feed their family is an additional 0.8 metric tons per hectare. When they have worked with us and they have learned the best agronomic practices and they have been able to make those advances, these farmers have been able to increase their yields three to five times over traditional practices.

When we have been working with these farmers in India, what they have been able to see is that they have increased their yields 25 30 per cent over what they have been doing and then they have been using it on their basic crops like pearl millet and mustard, but they can also apply it to vegetables. These farmers who are using these technologies are at the top of the spiral. We have our project in Guatemala – this is the picture of José Luis – he is a Mayan farmer and he carries fertilizer up his back to be able to get it to his fields and he said to me when I visited to his fields: never before had anybody told me how to grow our maize but know that I have this knowledge no-one can take that away from me. This is a farmer who is at the top of the spiral.

We then also need to think about the vision for smallholder farmers, for them to be able to achieve nutritional security through bio fortification. One of the biggest challenges that plagues the world is micronutrient deficiencies, but we all have to think about how do we all right now get the nutrients that we need. There are three ways that humans get nutrition: you get it through the supplements, that I guarantee some of you took this morning before you came here; you get nutrition through food that your purchase at the store that has had fortification done to it, there have been additional elements or minerals added to it during production; and the third way that humans are able to get the nutrition that they need is by plants absorbing that nutrition from the soil – that is called bio-fortification, that is how plants naturally are eating and then we eat those plants and then in those plants are the nutrients that we need.

Micronutrient fertilization programmes are going on globally right now to address some of the biggest micronutrient deficiencies that exist, from zinc, selenium, boron, iron and iodine. With these kinds of knowledge, the soils can become richer and have what they need but the reality is, a smallholder farmer does not realize that the health problems that they have are tied to micronutrient deficiencies that are caused from their soils. These farmers are at the bottom of the spiral.

The last vision that I want to share with you is of how farmers have big challenges in having access to the product that they need at the price that they need, and there are opportunities for governments and the private sector to work together to make this happen. One of the realities for smallholder farmers is that for them to get their product it is very expensive but there are reasons for that. There are huge transportation challenges globally; in Africa alone, 16 per cent of the 1.8 million kilometres of roads are paved. There is hardly any way to get fertilizer into the countries that need it. Additionally, there are not deep water ports to be able to buy it in bulk, there is a lack of train system, so there are challenges there. And anyone who takes custody of that product all along the supply chain always adds their own costs so there are extra fees and taxes and duties that are paid all along the way. Then the agridealers have challenges because they do not always have the training to be able to provide what they need to farmers, and if there is not a robust market where there is competition, and product is not purchased in bulk, you have small amounts of product and anybody selling it can tack on whatever they want for fees to the end.

So what is happening to be able to help farmers climb to the top of the scale is that there are a number of projects going on that really are making a difference. We are working right now with farmers in Guatemala, India and Africa to participate in a revolving loan fund where farmers have access to the product that they need – the fertilizer – at planting, and then they can pay back those loans at the end of the harvest. These revolving loan funds are helping farmers build their credit so they are building their own infrastructure of having access to product. Additionally, we are participating in projects that are helping to make the overall supply chain get stronger, making sure that from importation all the way to retail and then additionally helping the retail sector get the training that they need, but then there are also efforts to test fertilizer, make sure that it is the right quality that is being put out there, and then also efforts are going on to make sure that these agridealers are licenced and inspected along the way.

Then we have a very exciting project that we have supported for our work with Colombia University and also the University of Maryland. In this project, what we are doing is making sure that the soil test kit that they have been working on is being deployed out into the field. There is a kit that can go on the back of a bicycle or a motorcycle and it can go out into very rural communities. It can test the soils, it can see what is needed, that information can get transmitted via the cloud and then recommendations come back for fertilizer and other kinds of inputs to make sure that those soils are healthy. These are the kinds of projects that are going to help farmers get to the top of that spiral. Ultimately, fertilizer can make a huge difference for plant health and ultimately human health. We have talked about these tremendous challenges that smallholders are facing but there are also some amazing opportunities and when farmers are having the right financial, technical and logistical support to be able to get the product that they need, what we find is that there is a world where farmers are getting enough to eat; there is a world where farmers are having access to the micronutrients that they need to be able to support their health; and a world where smallholders are also having access to the knowledge and skills to make their business successful.

Plants, when they have balanced nutrition, they are healthy and so are we when we eat those plants and so are smallholder farmers, because that is what helps them get to the top of that spiral. I am going to ask all of you for your support in being able to make that happen for the smallholders of the world. Thank you.