Friday, March 5, 2010

Subsidies without Education = Disaster in India

Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal that documents the sad circumstance Indian farmers find themselves in after massive use of the fertilizer urea has killed the soil and reduced crop yields. Why the overuse of this fertilizer? Subsidies that made costs much lower for urea compared to other alternatives (which were also previously subsidized before urea received preferential treatment under a legislative compromise). In addition to the subsidies, lack of knowledge by farmers led to a bad interpretation about how to fix lower crop yields.

The Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Ltd. produces the fertilizer urea and because the cooperative represents 50 million farmers in India they are also a powerful special interest lobby. But, unlike other fertilizers which did not have subsidies, urea is not just inexpensive (thanks to the subsidies) but because it is nitrogen based without phosphorus, potassium or other important nutrients it does not do the complete job.

The second part of the disaster came from two sub-parts. First, farmers observed lower crop yields (due in part to the lacking necessary nutrients in the soil). Second, the farmers desperate to increase crop yields believed that it must be a quantity issue, not a quality issue with the fertilizer. So, they dumped more and more urea on the soil.

The result? The WSJ article discusses briefly the fact that the damage to the soil will be difficult to overcome in a short time horizon. And, there are other articles prior to the WSJ that discussed soil damage stemming from urea. Now, the Indian government is discussing the removal of subsidies from urea and potentially adopting a nutrient based subsidy program. Hopefully, this is sorted out soon because the crop yield matters tremendously in a country with so many mouths to feed.

Unfortunately, this is one more tragic case of unintended consequences.

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