Rapidly Disappearing Soils: Organic Fertilizers to the Rescue
Simply put, soil is sand and organic matter in the form of humus, living organisms, and microbes. It is the backbone and foundation of our food system with crops grown in healthy soils having a higher nutrient content than those grown in degraded soils. Yet, dramatically and regrettably, healthy soils are disappearing.
Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices, including leaching from the over usage of synthetic fertilizers, have degraded and eroded topsoil at alarming rates. According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, 52% of agricultural land globally is already degraded. And, by 2050, there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed. Yet, 90% of global soils could be degraded, unless aggressive action to restore and rehabilitate the soil is taken now. Fortunately, widely adopting sustainable soil management would ensure that the vital life supporting functions provided by soils are restored, maintained, and enhanced. Pillars of sustainable soil management include crop diversification, crop rotation, and increasing organic matter of the soil by applying organic fertilizer. Because of the organic matter present in organic fertilizer, soil structure is improved and as a result the soil’s ability to hold onto water and nutrients increases.
At the same time, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports that the on-going war between Ukraine and Russia, two major producers of synthetic fertilizers, have disrupted and will continue to adversely impact fertilizer supply and prices, and hence food production and prices globally. As a result, the Jamaican government has called for the private sector to boost the production of organic fertilizer to lower the agricultural sector’s dependence of costly imported synthetic fertilizers. However, this appeal is empty and pointless due to the absence of meaningful policy and laws to support its practical implementation.
The main input for organic fertilizer production is organic waste, such as chicken, cow, or pig manure, that can be recycled and transformed into compost or fertilizer by composting or using an anaerobic digester. And, certainly, large commercial farms may be able to generate and access a sufficient amount of waste to scale for market for financial viability. However, another source of organic waste that can used to produce organic fertilizer at a reasonable scale is food waste from hotels, given that Jamaica has over 70 all-inclusive resorts with most featuring elaborate buffets and several restaurants on property.
However, for entrepreneurs, organic waste recyclers, and other private sector actors to invest their efforts into organic fertilizer production, they would need open and consistent access to the food waste that can only be achieved or guaranteed if food waste recycling is mandated by law. Currently, in the absence of such laws, the majority of resorts choose not to pay for recycling services, instead opting to simply give a portion of their food waste to pig farmers who are willing to collect for free. Regrettably, this situation represents a missed opportunity to support the circular economy and to maximize the recycling and usage of food waste for good, i.e. bolstering our local organic fertilizer production capacity.
AgriShare's (CaribShare's sister initiative) locally produced compost used to grow fresh organic callaloo and cabbage.
The CaribShare Perspective:
As an organic waste recycling entrepreneur, my effort to produce organic fertilizer has indeed been hampered by the absence of food waste recycling laws. As a consequence, resorts have no real incentive to recycle their food waste unless they have a corporate sustainability policy requirement to do so. Currently, only a few resorts in Jamaica have implemented such a policy. Hopefully, over time more resorts will employ food waste recycling policies to align with the global hotel industry’s growing shift towards implementing sustainable food waste management and maximizing waste diversion from landfills.
Notwithstanding, however, another major barrier exists to developing an organic waste recycling / organic fertilizer business in Jamaica….i.e the cartel issue. The waste collection industry essentially has a closed cartel market structure with just a few producers who are able to dictate price and achieve immense profit. From microeconomics, we know that a cartel or an oligopoly exists due to formidable barriers to entry. In this case, the few waste players (garbage collectors) servicing the major tourism resorts are able to deter new ones from entering not by their exemplary pricing and quality of service, but rather by kick-backs and special insider “connections.” In fact, one of the owners of these waste companies is also the General Manager of a leading resort chain….which is common knowledge to those operating in the industry as well as to the “man on the street.” And, so, unfortunately, this form of corruption, conflict of interest, and unfair competition, not surprisingly, is widely tolerated and accepted. But, who said competition is fair in reality?
Ethics aside, an aspiring newcomer to the industry could partner or join one of the incumbent garbage collectors as they typically do not separate or recycle the organic waste collected. While such a strategy could work to some extent in the short run, it would be quite precarious and would prove not to be mutually cooperative in the long run for the newcomer. Therefore, local food waste recycling laws are also needed to help diversify and “open” the waste market to foster more competition. Microeconomics theory says that greater competition would provide consumers with better choices, lower prices, and more efficient allocation of resources. In reality, in this case, it would truly help to bolster our local organic fertilizer capacity and to develop an inclusive recycling sector with both big and small players partaking. Let not “opening” our waste market be a missed opportunity to broaden diversity and inclusiveness in our tourism supply chain.