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Pasture-style fertilizer offers import savings for the third world

How can a developing country substitute expensive imported fertilizer with a cheap, locally made one and at the same time produce a new energy source and control pollution from animal wastes?

Is it by (1) producing fertilizer with nuclear energy instead of oil; (2) by recycling animal wastes; or (3) by using volcanic ash for fertilizer?

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If you selected No. 2 you are right, according to Dr. Luis Diaz, a waste recycling expert with Cal Recovery Systems Inc. of California. Dr. Diaz, who is carrying out a technical assistance project for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) , notes that waste recycling can replace costly chemical fertilizers with organic ones, substitute imported oil with an alternative source of energy, and improve environmental conditions.

The ADB project, being carried out in the Philippines, involves setting up several biogas and composting plants to convert agricultural residues to energy and organic fertilizer. In addition, it will construct facilities for storing and distributing organic fertilizer as well as extend a network of extension services throughout the country.

If successful, the project should offer lessons to other developing countries beset by importing fertilizers and petroleum. As Dr. Diaz put it: ''We are not inventing the wheel. Biogas has been around for a long time.

''However, what makes this project novel is that it is the first time a major development project in Asia has emphasized the use of organic fertilizer through the process of composting.

''What's more, the project includes the integration of different processes - biogasification plants, composting plants, collection of wastes, marketing of organic fertilizer, and extension services; and this integrative approach has never been done before.''

In fact, biogas can be a boon for third world countries. Some agronomists even predict that with the introduction of the biogas process, a ''recycling revolution'' (similar to the green revolution) is in the offing.

By using organic wastes as raw materials, biogas not only solves the problem of waste disposal and eliminates pollution, but it converts these wastes (of no economic value) into goods essential to human survival - fuel for man's energy needs and fertilizer to meet man's requirements for food production.

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By providing rural dwellers with a fuel gas, biogas can help prevent the plunder of forests, since the cutting down of trees for use as firewood becomes unnecessary. It reduces household needs for coal, oil, or kerosene for cooking; and by providing an abundant supply of cheap organic fertilizer, it curtails the farmer's dependence on chemical fertilizers.

To illustrate the impact that waste recycling can have on a developing country, let's look at the Philippines. In 1980, total imports and production of chemical fertilizers amounted to 982,000 metric tons. Of this amount, 95 percent - or $240 million worth of fertilizer - was imported.

On the other hand, the Philippine Ministry of Agriculture estimates that animals and crops combined generate about 790 million tons of waste each year. These contain large quantities of energy and nutrients which, if properly harnessed, can reduce the country's fuel and fertilizer needs.

According to Dimyati Nangju, an ADB agronomist, the best method of converting wastes to organic fertilizers is composting, the ancient practice whereby farmers transform wastes into resources that provide nutrients to crops. Organic fertilizers were traditionally used in developing countries until the 1960s, when chemical fertilizers began to gain popularity because of their extensive use in more advanced countries.

Chemical fertilizers became readily available and were easier to transport, handle, and store. They were also inexpensive and had effective results, particularly during the green revolution, when crop varieties were introduced which responded best to heavy applications of chemical fertilizers.

As a result, when oil prices skyrocketed in the early 1970s, chemical fertilizers had virtually replaced organic sources of crop nutrients in developing countries. But because of the energy crisis, chemical fertilizers have become too costly for low-income farmers, and organic fertilizers have thus begun to regain their lost luster.

Finally, despite the project's bright prospects, there are several obstacles ahead. For example, it must gain farmers' acceptance of organic fertilizers as well as devise a way to collect wastes. But as Mr. Nangju says philosophically, ''A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step, and we are taking that first step toward solving some of the energy problems of the third world.''

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