Global food crisis looms as fertilizer supplies dwindle

Sanctions on Russia, bad weather, and export cuts have fueled a severe fertilizer shortage that has farmers scrambling to keep the world fed.

Think the global fertilizer shortage is someone else’s problem? Take a look in the mirror. If you are reading this in North America, Europe, Latin America, or Asia, chances are that the bundle of amino acids staring back at you is alive today because of chemical fertilizers.

In fact, according to noted Canadian energy researcher Vaclav Smil, two-fifths of humanity—more than three billion people—are alive because of nitrogen fertilizer, the main ingredient in the Green Revolution that supercharged the agricultural sector in the 1960s. The chemical fertilizer trifecta that tripled global grain production—nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)—enabled the greatest human population growth the planet has ever seen. Now, it is in short supply, and farmers, fertilizer companies, and governments around the globe are scrambling to avert a seemingly inevitable tumble in crop yields.

“I’m not sure it’s possible any more to avoid a food crisis,” says World Farmers’ Organization President Theo de Jager. “The question is how wide and deep it will be. Most importantly, farmers need peace. And peace needs farmers.”

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a body blow to an industry that has been hammered by various events for more than a year. Russia typically exports nearly 20 percent of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers and, combined with its sanctioned neighbor Belarus, 40 percent of the world’s exported potassium, according to analysts at Rabobank. Most of that is now off limits to the world’s farmers, thanks to Western sanctions and Russia’s recent fertilizer export restrictions.

“If you speak to a farmer in North America or Oceania, the main talk is fertilizers, specifically the price and availability of fertilizers,” de Jager told a virtual conference on the subject recently. “Prices are more or less 78 percent higher than average in 2021, and this is cracking up the production side of agriculture. In many regions farmers simply can’t afford to bring fertilizers to the farm, or even if they could, the fertilizers are not available to them. And it’s not just fertilizers, but agrichemicals and fuel as well. This is a global crisis and it requires a global response.”

Most of the response thus far has been pretty ad hoc, with every farm and government for itself. But last week, the U.S. and global development banks announced a major “action plan” on global food security totaling more than $30 billion in aid, in hopes of staving off a repeat of the food riots that toppled governments during the last food price crises in 2008 and 2012.

U.S. farmers are feeling the burn

Rodney Rulon is better off than many farmers this year. A progressive farmer in Arcadia, Indiana, he has been using no-till techniques, cover crops, and chicken litter on his family’s 7,200 acres of corn and soybean fields since 1992. Combined with extensive soil testing each year, he’s cut his chemical fertilizer use 20 to 30 percent, he says—but it’s still his largest input.

“We’re making big cuts to what we’re spending on fertilizer this year,” Rulon says. “It’s $1,200 a ton for P and K. It was $450 last year. Nitrogen was $500-550 a ton last year. Now it’s well over $1,000. You just took our biggest expense and doubled it.” He can’t even get the 3,000 tons of chicken litter he normally uses in place of chemical phosphorus and potassium. He had a gentleman’s agreement with his supplier to purchase his usual amount for $60 a ton, but it sold out to a higher bidder.

High fertilizer prices have caused a run on manure in many parts of the country as farmers scramble for alternatives and seek ways to cut their fertilizer bills. That might not be a bad thing, says Antonio Mallarino, a soil scientist and plant nutrient expert at Iowa State University, who has been trying for decades to get farmers to stop overfertilizing.

“On 50 to 60 percent of fields in Iowa you could not apply P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) for 10 years and they’d be okay,” Mallarino says.

Though corn prices broke $8 per bushel in February, close to the all-time high set in 2012, many farmers are switching to soybeans, which require fewer nutrients and so less fertilizer. The USDA’s planting survey, released on March 31, showed farmers intend to plant a record 91 million acres of soybeans this year, 4 percent more than last year, while corn acres fell to 89.5 million acres—the lowest in five years.

“If this situation continues it may be good for the environment,” Mallarino says. “We may not have all this excess nitrogen and phosphorus going into the rivers and lakes.”

Bert Frost has heard more than a few grumbles from farmers about fertilizer prices. He’s the senior vice president for sales, supply chain, and market development for CF Industries, one of the largest producers of nitrogen fertilizers in the world. The smooth interplay of supply and demand that has kept nitrogen prices in a narrow range for the last 10 years is no longer working, he says—because both supply and demand have been hit by external shocks.

“What we have today is a confluence of all the factors not working in concert with each other,” Frost says.

A rebound in industrial activity that uses the raw ingredients in fertilizer coming out of the pandemic, combined with low global inventories of food grains, have pushed demand through the roof. Suppliers, on the other hand, have been knocked back by one extreme weather event after another. Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 literally froze production at fertilizer plants from Iowa to Texas, knocking several offline for a month or more. Six months later, Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana’s chemical alley, damaging several fertilizer producers, including CFI’s Donaldsonville complex. With its six ammonia and four urea plants (urea is a fertilizer chemically derived from nitrogen), it’s the largest such facility in the world. The company was forced to cancel its contracts for a while.

“And I’ve got more,” Frost says. “Then China and Russia impose export restrictions on fertilizer. China exports 10 percent of the urea supply in the world. Their exports went to zero. Then Russia invades Ukraine and all hell breaks loose.”

The market was reeling, in other words, even before the war, the sanctions, and the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

“All the factors I laid out for you earlier, we haven’t had those before,” Frost says.“So the logistics are screwed up. I don’t think this resolves itself.”

Latin America: running on empty?

North American farmers will eventually get the fertilizer they need this season, says Frost, even if they have to pay dearly for it. But it’s the agricultural powerhouses in Latin America that are the most vulnerable to fertilizer disruptions, particularly Brazil, which imports about 85 percent of its fertilizer, a quarter of it typically from Russia.

If farmers there cut back on fertilizers and their yields fall, it could have a significant impact on global food supplies. Brazil is among the world’s top three exporters of soybeans, corn, and sugar, as well as beef, chicken, and pork, according to a recent USDA report.

The major planting season in the Southern Hemisphere begins in September, and the Brazilian government is scrambling to find new fertilizer sources. Earlier this year it even struck a barter deal with Iran—working around U.S. sanctions on that country—in which Iran would send 400,000 tons of urea to Brazil in exchange for corn and soybeans. So critical are Russia’s fertilizers to Brazil and the world food supply, the Biden administration carved out a loophole for them in its suite of Russian sanctions in late March. Although financial sanctions are still hindering deliveries, analysts hope the move will ease the pressure on global food prices.

“It’s impossible to make forecasts on this situation,” says Micaela Bové, farming solutions director for Yara Latinamérica, based in Buenos Aires. “I never imagined COVID would still be here, and yet it is. I never imagined this invasion would become a war, and yet it has. But farmers are the heroes in this. They were hit by everything that you can imagine, and they always produce food.”

Bové says her division of Yara, the Norwegian fertilizer behemoth, is not seeing shortages in her region, which runs from the smallholder farms of Mexico to the vast estancias of Argentina, excluding Brazil. But the high prices are causing many to use less. So she and her team are promoting tools and apps to help farmers use their product more efficiently. “Fertilizer decisions depend on the crop,” she says, “And a maize farmer in Mexico has different needs than a citrus farmer or banana farmer elsewhere.”

Africa: From little to none

African farmers on average use the least fertilizer per acre in the world and have some of the lowest yields, particularly for corn and other grains that provide the bulk of the continent’s calories. As a result, despite having 60 percent of the world’s arable land, almost half the countries in Africa depends on imported wheat from Russia and Ukraine, with 14 African countries getting more than half their wheat from the two warring nations. Rising food prices now threaten to push millions of African families into poverty and malnutrition.

And the distant war is not their only challenge, says Agnes Kalibala, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a Nairobi-based non-profit that has worked with African governments and foreign aid agencies to increase the use of fertilizers and improved seeds to boost yields across the continent. “The most important part to me, even before fertilizers, is how much farmers are suffering from a climate change perspective,” says Kalibata, the former minister of agriculture for Rwanda. “In countries where it didn’t rain last year, there was generally a depression in interest in fertilizers. So the question now is will that interest pick up as the rains are coming to some of those areas.”

But even if countries can get fertilizer, farmers often can’t afford it, she says. Governments that typically subsidize fertilizer are struggling with massive post-COVID debt that in some nations is more than 50 percent of their gross domestic product. Kalibata’s group is working with the African Union, the African Development Bank, and the G7 nations to help with emergency funding, but also encouraging farmers to look at alternatives.

“In Africa our productivity is very low and we have high nitrate depletion in our soils,” Kalibata says. “It’s very difficult to grow maize or rice without nutrients. But there are other opportunities like fava beans, which are grown in Ethiopia and Sudan, that can fix 100 percent of their nitrogen needs. That is a fantastic opportunity.”

Nitrogen fixation is a natural symbiotic process that distinguishes legumes from cereal grains, which are in the grass family. Rhizobia bacteria living on the plants’ roots convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia that the plants can use, while the plants provide sugars to the bacteria. Beans are great nitrogen fixers: Soybeans supply up to 70 or 80 percent of their own needs. Common beans, a staple bean grown all over Africa, can fix up to 30 percent.

“So you still use nutrients, but you use less,” Kalibata says.

As always, climate is still the wild card. Without rain, fertilizer has little if any effect.

“If we can get rainfall in some of these areas, these countries should be able to find alternatives,” says Kalibata. “If they don’t, we’ll have multiple crises on our hands.”

Better off organic

About the only farmers who are not complaining about fertilizers this season are the rising number of organic growers. Their mantra has long been to feed the soil, not the plant, and to eschew chemical fertilizers and pesticides for legume cover crops, diversified crop rotations, and promoting beneficial insects and microbes in their fields. Some cover crops, like hairy vetch, can produce up to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre, according to Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Rodale, with help from the Pennsylvania State University, has been conducting side-by-side comparisons of conventional and organic cropping systems since 1981—the longest-running such field trial in North America. After a five-year transition period, they found organic yields were not only competitive with conventional yields, they yielded up to 40 percent higher during drought. Most importantly, they earned farmers three to six times more profit, while releasing no toxic chemicals into rivers and streams.

“Fertilizer is just the tip of the spear of the problems farmers are facing,” Moyer says. “Look at Kansas and Nebraska. Both states are on fire this year and this is supposed to be their wet season. With weather patterns changing and energy costs going up and not coming down, we need to revolutionize our production models to minimize these impacts.”

Converting to organic takes time, however, and that’s something many of the world’s farmers are running out of as well.

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