New Fertilizer Method Uses Technology to Improve Efficiency, Lessen Impacts

Across Asia, millions of rice farmers depend on urea fertilizer to meet the nitrogen needs of the continent’s primary crop. Many farmers still spread urea into floodwaters to fertilize rice. This is highly inefficient – about two-thirds of the fertilizer is lost as greenhouse gas or becomes a groundwater pollutant.

Urea deep placement (UDP) is a more efficient and environmentally responsible method of fertilization. IFDC pioneered UDP research and helped introduce it in Bangladesh in the 1980s. UDP technology has since been spread to other countries in Asia, including Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam.

Farmers using UDP place urea briquettes into soil near the rice plants. UDP increases nitrogen use efficiency because most of the urea nitrogen stays in the soil, close to the plant roots where it is absorbed more effectively. The net result is that crop yields are increased while pollution is lessened. Farmers using UDP are increasing yields by more than 20 percent while using 40 percent less urea.

By 2008/09, the Bangladesh Department of Agricultural Extension (with IFDC assistance) spread UDP technology to 500,000 hectares (ha) of rice fields, increasing production by 268,000 metric tons (mt) annually. UDP farmers had additional annual net returns of $188/ha.

UDP use reduced Bangladesh’s urea imports in 2008 by 50,000 mt, saving $22 million in fertilizer imports and $14 million in government subsidies. UDP generated an additional 9.5 days of labor per hectare – almost 4.6 million additional days of labor. More importantly, the additional rice has made 1.5 million more Bangladeshis food-secure.

The Bangladesh Government began expanding UDP technology this year to 2.9 million more farm families on 1.5 million ha. By 2011, rice production is expected to increase by almost 1 million mt, ensuring food security for an additional 4.2 million Bangladeshis.

The UDP technology not only improves farmers’ productivity and income, but the need for urea also creates employment opportunities. IFDC engineers developed a simple machine to mold urea into briquettes, and helped establish village-level businesses to manufacture and distribute the machines. Nearly 2,500 urea briquette machines are now in use across Bangladesh.

All farmers seek gains in efficiency and productivity, but nowhere is the need greater than in Africa. Because farmers worldwide face many of the same problems, a group of African farmers, scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and extension workers visited Bangladesh to see UDP use first-hand. As a result, the UDP technology is being introduced in Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Togo.

Visiting UDP rice fields in Niger, Chaibou Abdou, Secretary General to Niger’s Minister of Agriculture, said “Spiraling food prices spurred the government decision to boost rice production and reduce costly imports. Niger has 30,000 hectares of land with rice production potential. With UDP this land could supply 30 percent of our needs.”