The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept – A sustainable way to farm
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 14 Jul 2012 3 Comments

What is common between a Turkish wheat farmer in Central Anatolia who applies 100 kg per hectare of zinc sulphate (a branded and very expensive fertilizer carrying the “micronutrient” zinc) to “correct” the “acute” zinc deficiency in his soil, and a Haryanvi wheat farmer who applies 100 kg of diammonium phosphorus (a branded phosphatic fertilizer carrying the “macronutrient” phosphorus, equally expensive now) per hectare to “boost” his wheat crop?


The former has been “advised” by a Turkish soil scientist that since zinc is not “available” to plant in his soil, he needs to boost its “availability” by the application of a massive dose. The latter is in a similar boat. The common thread that binds both farmers is the routine “advice” that agricultural scientists the world over dish out, based on textbook knowledge. In other words, this is the principal plank on which the chemically driven agriculture, euphemistically known as the “green revolution”, is rooted.


The above statements bring us to the important question – what is the real meaning of the word “availability” of a nutrient? In the ultimate analysis, it is the plant, and only the plant, that will decide whether a specific nutrient in the soil is available or not. This is because there is a dynamic interaction involving important aspects of physical chemistry and plant physiology that impinges on this intricate relationship between a growing plant root and the soil mass in which it grows.


The most unfortunate and devastatingly severe impact which the chemically-driven green revolution has inflicted on Indian soils is that our “scientists” believed that many of the plant nutrients required for optimum crop production were not available in the soil. And “fertilizer use recommendations” were made on the basis of this presumption. In other words, our farmers were made to believe that this pool of nutrients in the soil is not available to the plant. There is a sinister plan to the whole game. Let me explain.


Following the Second World War, a number of factories used for the production of war chemicals were shut down in the United States. The American planners laid out a plan to produce chemical fertilizers such as urea and ammonium sulphate in these shut down factories. This opened up a totally new avenue for employment. However, the important question was how and where these fertilizers would be used.


India was a prime target, and the Indian soils were chosen as the dumping ground for these chemical fertilizers. One must note that at this point India had no capacity to produce even a single grain of chemical fertilizer. Almost at the same time, the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Research (CIMMYT) in Mexico, under the active leadership of late Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist, was working on wheat.


A “dwarf” wheat was evolved. But its most important limitation was that it would only respond to high application of external fertilizers, unlike many of India’s native germplasm which were not only high yielder, but resistant to plant diseases, as well. As destiny would have it, a grand plan was laid out whereby these dwarf wheat seeds would be imported into India and multiplied in farmers fields. Along with this came the American fertilizers. 

Norman Borlaug was ably assisted by an Indian “scientist” who had strong political backing. Thus was born what was euphemistically called the green revolution – a combination of dwarf wheat and massive doses of chemical fertilizer input. Indian soils became the dumping ground for American fertilizers. The rest is history.


By the mid-1970s, this author had warned that India was on a wrong track as far as its soil management policy was concerned and predicted that the so-called green revolution would falter. It certainly did. The degraded soils due to excessive use of chemical fertilizers, the dried aquifers because of excessive draining of water for irrigation, and the vanishing bio-diversity due to mono-cropping of wheat and rice in the Punjab, “cradle” of green revolution, is testimony to this.


What is the “Buffer Power Concept”?


In 1980, this author, while was working as Senior Associate Professor in the GB Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, UP, was selected for the renowned Alexander von Humboldt Senior Fellowship (the only Indian Agricultural Scientist to have been selected thus far) and obtained a placement at the prestigious Institute of Plant Nutrition, Justus von Liebig University, Giessen, Federal Republic of Germany, the seat of world chemistry, where he set out to find crucial answers to the question why the so-called green was faltering. 


My target was to understand the fundamental process of nutrient absorption by plant roots – how a plant would make “available” a soil nutrient. I will refrain from needless chemistry and physiology; suffice to say that the interaction between a plant root and soil mass is very complex. In simple language, the soil mass acts as a pump and the capacity of this pump can vary from soil to soil. 


For optimal plant nutrition, a favourable nutrient concentration has to be maintained on the root surface and it is the capacity of a particular soil to maintain this ability. I termed this capacity as the soil’s “Buffer Power”. Thus was born a revolutionary idea, challenging the chemically-driven green revolution.


The concept was presented, in detail, at the International Conference on Plant Nutrition, in Montpellier, France, in 1984, following which I was named to the National Chair of the Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium, the only Asian scientist to be named to this prestigious Chair. International recognition followed, with numerous invitations to international conferences, workshops, seminars and so on. While all this happened, in India road blocks were being erected by a politically supported “scientist” to deny recognition to my work at home. But international recognition came.


How does the “Buffer Power Concept” help the poor farmer?


With escalating costs of chemical fertilizers, the farmer is often at a loss as to what to do, especially when it comes to fertilizing his crop. The most tragic instance of this is in the case of cotton in the Vidarbha district of Maharashtra where the Bt cotton has miserably failed because farmers went bankrupt because of very high input costs, especially fertilizers, and the mind boggling price of the Bt cotton seed. The “Buffer Power Concept” precisely estimates the capacity of the soil in question to supply the plant nutrients from the inherent nutrient pool.


Practical Examples of success


My concept helped farmers in Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and more recently in Kerala State. In Central Asia, wheat farmers were enabled to reduce the input costs of zinc fertilizers by almost three-fold. More recently a similar success was achieved in the case of both Black Pepper and Cardamom, the main economic stay of Kerala farmers. Examples could be multiplied manifold.


Stumbling Block to the “Buffer Power Concept”


The main stumbling block to this revolutionary concept is the vested interests in India. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, whose strings are pulled behind the stage by the insecure but reputed “scientist”, is content with continuing the “status quo” in so far as soil management is concerned.


Very recently, this author came across an instance in Kerala State where Black Pepper farmers were “advised” to apply 25 kg of zinc sulphate per hectare, which translates into more than Rs 2500 investment per hectare. When this assumption was critically examined by the author based on field and laboratory experimentation, it was found that in some soils this rate could be reduced by almost 75%.


One must not forget the fact that “over application” of a chemical fertilizer leaves the soil degraded. This is what has happened in the wheat belt of India – Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh – the “cradle” of the green revolution. Take a trip to these States and you will notice that in some places the soils are so degraded that not even a blade of grass will grow.



Prof. K.P. Prabhakaran Nair is a Kerala-based international agricultural scientist. His “Nutrient Buffer Power Concept” was recently short-listed for the prestigious US$ 1 million Rolex Award for Enterprise, from among over 3500 nominations world-wide, in the “Environment Category”

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