Myanmar Soil Fertility and Fertilizer Management

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Myanmar stands on the brink of potentially dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and profitability, including increased and improved fertilizer use and management. The fertilizer situation in Myanmar seems to be only partially documented with official fertilizer import and manufacture statistics accounting for only a part of the overall actual on-farm usage. For instance, published household survey studies indicate a much higher rate of fertilizer use than do many official statistics. Opportunities for improved efficiency and profitability of fertilizer use include integration of fertilizer with whole-farm management and other sources of nutrients, improved more realistic interpretations of yield response trials, and improved placement technology, such as deep placement of urea in paddy fields. More emphasis needs to be placed on sulfur as a major nutrient and possibly on the need to supply micronutrients as well. Fertilizer application recommendations should be based on yield and quality response data and correlated soil tests, not simply on replacing all nutrients taken up or removed in harvest. It is a fortunate fact of agro-ecology that most damaging environmental effects of fertilizers result from their overuse and abuse and mismanagement, not from their optimal and proper use. Therefore, there should not be a conflict between minimizing environmental damages and maximizing productivity and profitability. For example, nitrogen losses through leaching and gaseous emissions are usually closely related to nitrogen surplus. Efficient fertilizer management should eliminate the need for applying more than the amount of nitrogen actually taken up. Such management will both improve profitability and dramatically reduce environmental impacts. There is a need for site-specific testing and recommendations because even the best blanket recommendation will be wrong most of the time. Reliance on blanket recommendations is akin to buying shoes for the entire family based on the average size of the parents and children-in all likelihood, everybody is going to be uncomfortable. It seems that fertilizer quality and adulteration, at least for compound granulated fertilizers, may not be as great a problem as some have feared. Probably a greater problem that cheats the farmer of value is ignorance of basic fertilizer principles, including an understanding of the nutrient content of different types of fertilizers. Still, there are opportunities and probably many instances of cheating and adulteration in informal fertilizer markets directed toward the poorest farmers. Spot checks using simple analytical instruments and, if compound fertilizers and micronutrient blends become important, portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) instruments may be a sensible way to police quality control with on-the-spot inspections and real-time results. A soil health-oriented whole-farm management approach will be necessary for sustainable development of the agriculture sector in Myanmar. Well-managed fertilizers have an important supporting role to play in this endeavor.