War in Russia worsens fertilizer shortage, jeopardizing food supply


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KIAMBU COUNTY, KENYA —
Monica Kariuki is about to give up farming. What drives her from her 10 acres of land outside Nairobi isn’t bad weather, pests or blight – traditional agricultural blights – but fertilizer: it costs too much.

Although thousands of kilometers separate it from the battlefields of Ukraine, Kariuki and its cabbage, corn and spinach farm are indirect victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The war has driven up the price of natural gas, a key fertilizer ingredient, and led to severe sanctions against Russia, a major fertilizer exporter.

Kariuki used to spend 20,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $175, to fertilize his entire farm. Now she would have to spend five times as much. Continuing to work the land, she said, would only bring losses.

“I cannot continue farming. I am leaving farming to try something else,” she said.

Rising fertilizer prices are making the global food supply more expensive and less plentiful, as farmers skimp on nutrients for their crops and get lower yields. While the repercussions will be felt by grocery shoppers in rich countries, the strain on food supplies will hit families in poorer countries harder. It could hardly come at a worse time: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said last week that its global food price index in March rose to its highest level since its inception in 1990 .

The fertilizer crisis threatens to further limit global food supplies, already constrained by the disruption of crucial grain shipments from Ukraine and Russia. The loss of these affordable supplies of wheat, barley and other grains raises the prospect of food shortages and political instability in the Middle East, Africa and some Asian countries where millions depend on subsidized bread and cheap noodles. .

“Food prices will skyrocket because farmers will have to make a profit, so what will happen to consumers? said Uche Anyanwu, an agricultural expert at the University of Nigeria.

Aid group Action Aid warns that families in the Horn of Africa are already being pushed “to the brink of survival”.

According to the UN, Russia is the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizers and the second largest exporter of phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. Its ally Belarus, also grappling with Western sanctions, is another big fertilizer producer.

Many developing countries – including Mongolia, Honduras, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Mexico and Guatemala – depend on Russia for at least a fifth of their imports.

The conflict has also driven up the already exorbitant price of natural gas, used to make nitrogen fertilizer. The result: European energy prices so high that some fertilizer companies “shut down and stopped running their factories,” said David Laborde, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

For maize and cabbage farmer Jackson Koeth, 55, from Eldoret in western Kenya, the conflict in Ukraine was distant and confusing until he had to decide whether or not to continue with the planting season. Fertilizer prices had doubled compared to last year.

Koeth said he decided to continue planting, but only on half the acreage of past years. However, he doubts he can profit from such expensive fertilizers.

Greek farmer Dimitris Filis, who grows olives, oranges and lemons, said nitrate of ammonia “has to be searched for” and the cost of fertilizing a 10-hectare olive grove has doubled to 560 euro ($310). As he sold his wares at an Athens farmers’ market, he said most farmers were planning not to fertilize their olive and orange groves this year.

“Many people will not use fertilizer at all, which will therefore reduce the quality of production and the production itself, and slowly, slowly at some point, they will no longer be able to cultivate their land because there will be no income,” Filis said.

In China, the price of potash — a potassium-rich salt used as fertilizer — rose 86% from a year earlier. Nitrogen fertilizer prices increased by 39% and phosphorus fertilizer by 10%.

In the eastern Chinese city of Tai’an, the director of a 35-family cooperative that grows wheat and maize said fertilizer prices had jumped 40% since the start of the year.

“We can hardly make money,” said the manager, who gave only his surname, Zhao.

Terry Farms, which grows produce on 2,100 acres primarily in Ventura, Calif., has seen prices for some fertilizer formulations double; others are up 20%. Moving fertilizers is risky, Vice President William Terry said, because cheaper versions might not give “the crop what it needs as a food source.”

As the growing season approaches in Maine, potato growers are grappling with a 70 to 100 percent increase in fertilizer prices over last year, depending on the mix.

“I think it’s going to be quite an expensive crop, no matter what you put in the soil, from fertilizer to fuel to labor to electricity and everything else,” Donald said. Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board.

In Prudentopolis, a town in the Brazilian state of Parana, farmer Edimilson Rickli showed off a warehouse that would normally be full of bags of fertilizer, but only has a few more weeks left. He fears that, with the war in Ukraine showing no signs of letting up, he will have to go without fertilizer when he plants wheat, barley and oats next month.

“The question is: where is Brazil going to buy more fertilizer? he said. “We have to find other markets.”

Other countries hope to help fill the gaps. Nigeria, for example, opened Africa’s largest fertilizer plant last month, and the $2.5 billion plant has already shipped fertilizer to the United States, Brazil, India and the United States. Mexico.

India, meanwhile, is seeking to import more fertilizer from Israel, Oman, Canada and Saudi Arabia to make up for lost shipments from Russia and Belarus.

“If the supply shortage gets worse, we will produce less,” said Kishor Rungta of the nonprofit Fertilizer Association of India. “That’s why we have to look for options to get more fertilizer into the country.”

Agribusinesses provide support to farmers, especially in Africa where poverty often limits access to vital agricultural inputs. In Kenya, Apollo Agriculture helps farmers obtain fertilizer and access finance.

“Some farmers skip the planting season and others go into other projects, like buying goats to cope,” said Benjamin Njenga, co-founder of the company. “So those support services go a long way for them.”

Governments also help. The United States Department of Agriculture announced last month that it was providing $250 million in grants to support fertilizer production in the United States. The Swiss government released part of its nitrogen fertilizer reserves.

Yet there is no easy answer to the double whammy of higher fertilizer prices and tight supplies. The next 12 to 18 months, said food researcher LaBorde, “will be tough.”

The market was already “super, super tight” before the war, said Kathy Mathers of the Fertilizer Institute trade group.

“Unfortunately, in many cases growers are just happy to get fertilizer,” she said.

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Asadu reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and Wiseman from Washington. Contributors to this story: Tatiana Pollastri in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Debora Alvares in Brasilia, Brazil; Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi; Lefteris Pitarakis in Athens; Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Joe McDonald and Yu Bing in Beijing; Lisa Rathke in Marshfield, Vermont; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; Kathia Martinez in Panama City; Christoph Noelting in Frankfurt; Fabiola Sanchez in Mexico City; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Morocco; Tassanee Vejpongsa and Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Edie Lederer at the United Nations; and Aya Batrawy in Dubai.

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