Report stakeholder workshop micronutrient management
On April 5, 2016, the stakeholder workshop “Micronutrient management for improving harvests, farmers’ incomes, human nutrition, and the environment” was held in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It brought together stakeholders from different scientific disciplines and sectors to explore the potential roles and functionalities of micronutrient management and to identify the agenda for knowledge development. A preparatory Essay by Wageningen UR served as background reading.
Addressing micronutrient deficiencies is an urgent challenge which needs action in the context of efforts to improve food and nutrient security. First of all, because of the serious health consequences of micronutrient deficiencies in resource poor populations, particularly vulnerable groups such as women and young children. Second, because micronutrient deficiencies in soils and plants are among the factors that limit crop growth, which hampers agricultural productivity and farmers’ incomes. Finally, micronutrients can positively impact the agricultural ecosystem.
Research institutes and the private sector are working on micronutrient enriched fertilizers, for example through blending of micronutrients into generic NPK fertilizers and through more advanced technical solutions such as coatings and liquid forms of fertilizers for foliar application. The development and use of these micronutrient enriched fertilizers is at an early stage. There are challenges related to the technical aspects of micronutrient management in the soil, the plant, the food, and the human body. At the same time, it is even more challenging to develop micronutrient solutions that are appropriate for resource poor farmers, taking into account the local production (ecological, soil, water) conditions and socio-economic context.
Micronutrient management can be portrayed as a jigsaw in which many pieces need to be assembled through an integrated approach: dietary diversification, supplementation, food fortification and (agronomic and genetic) bio-fortification. There is evidence of the efficiency and effectiveness of micronutrient management interventions including some first experiences with agronomic bio-fortification, but this is still limited and not yet sufficiently strong to justify significant business investments. Key conclusions of the workshop were:
- While many knowledge gaps were identified, there is a strong need felt by many participants to move to action and decide which interventions are most effective and which business cases can support action.
- There is evidence that micronutrient (e.g. Se, Zn) containing fertilizers can improve yield, which can serve as an incentive for farmers to start using them. This impact largely depends on specific crops, nutrient and soil conditions.
- Currently, the pathway from agronomic bio-fortification to human micronutrient uptake is insufficiently validated. At present, the business case to improve yields is stronger than the business case to improve consumers’ nutrition.
- Middle-class consumers in developing countries may be willing to pay for micronutrient enriched products, yet the poor are more in need of these products but may not be able to afford these. So government policy should address this problem. The lack of visibility of micronutrients in food makes their marketing more difficult.
- Technological fixes and inputs related to agronomic bio-fortification (in particular, micronutrient enriched fertilizers) are not accessible and available to small-scale farmers in Africa due to high costs or lack of distribution. In addition, current fertilizers have fixed nutrient ratios that might not be suitable for the specific soils and cropping systems.
- All in all, the importance of soil health and soil testing before an intervention was stressed.
- While organic fertilizer should be part of the puzzle, it is debatable whether the overall amount of organic material available on the African continent will be sufficient to sustain soil fertility.
- Supportive policy is important as well. Governments could influence the use of micronutrients through legislation. At the moment, standard fertilizers are often subsidized, but micronutrient-enriched fertilizers are sometimes heavily taxed.
- Industry is interested in finding a general solution through blending one of the most promising micronutrients through regular fertilizers. However, others argued that solutions need to take into account the context specific qualities of the soils and the needs of the farmers.
- Further research and evidence is needed about the pathways from agronomic bio-fortification to human micronutrient uptake. A first step would concentrate on whether and how agronomic bio-fortification could lead to an increased product quality. Indicators would not only include the concentrations of micronutrients in the edible parts of the crop, but also their bioavailability when consumed by people.
- Research initiatives in the field of agronomic bio-fortification need to be connected to those in the field of genetic bio-fortification, because of the multiple relations between both genetic characteristics of crops and the agronomic context in which they are grown.
- The group suggested a focus on staple crops and Zn enriched micronutrient fertilizers in the first instance to ensure effectiveness since there is evidence that Zn fertilizers could impact nutrition. This should not discourage further exploring the potential of other micronutrients or compositions.