Fertilizer crunch, soaring prices resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine threaten world food supplies

The war has pushed up the price of natural gas, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and led to sanctions against Russia, a major fertilizer exporter. The impact is being felt globally.

SHARE Fertilizer crunch, soaring prices resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine threaten world food supplies
Farmers offload livestock manure from a truck in Kiambu, Kenya, that will be used to fertilize crops due to the soaring cost of fertilizer they say they now can’t afford to buy.

Farmers offload livestock manure from a truck in Kiambu, Kenya, that will be used to fertilize crops due to the soaring cost of fertilizer they say they now can’t afford to buy.

Brian Inganga / AP

KIAMBU COUNTY, Kenya — Monica Kariuki is about ready to give up on farming.

What’s driving her off her 10 acres of land outside Nairobi isn’t bad weather, pests or blight — the traditional agricultural curses.

It’s fertilizer: It costs too much.

Though far from the battlefields of Ukraine, Kariuki and the cabbage, corn and spinach she grows on her farm are victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The war has pushed up the price of natural gas, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and led to severe sanctions against Russia, a major fertilizer exporter.

Kariuki used to spend 20,000 Kenyan shillings, about $175, to fertilize her farm. Now, she would need to spend five times as much.

Without fertilizer, she said, continuing to work the land would yield nothing but losses.

“I cannot continue with the farming business,” she said. “I am quitting farming to try something else.”

Higher fertilizer prices are making the world’s food supply more expensive and less abundant, as farmers skimp on nutrients for their crops and get lower yields.

While the ripples will be felt by grocery shoppers in wealthy countries, the squeeze on food supplies will land hardest on families in poorer countries.

And that could hardly come at a worse time: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said its world food-price index in March reached its highest level since it was created in 1990.

The fertilizer crunch threatens to further limit world food supplies, already constrained by the disruption of grain shipments from Ukraine and Russia. The loss of those affordable supplies of wheat, barley and other grains has raised the prospect of food shortages and political instability in Middle Eastern, African and some Asian countries where millions rely on subsidized bread and cheap noodles.

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

The aid group Action Aid warns that families in the Horn of Africa are being driven “to the brink of survival.”

Russia is the world’s No. 1 exporter of nitrogen fertilizer and No. 2 in phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. Its ally Belarus, also facing Western sanctions, is another major fertilizer producer.

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

The conflict also has driven up the already-exorbitant price of natural gas, used to make nitrogen fertilizer. European energy prices are now so high that some fertilizer companies “have closed their businesses and stopped operating their plants,” said David Laborde, a researcher with the International Food Policy Research Institute.

For corn and cabbage farmer Jackson Koeth, 55, of Eldoret in western Kenya, the conflict in Ukraine was distant and puzzling — until he had to decide whether to go ahead with the planting season in the face of fertilizer prices that had doubled since last year. Koeth decided to plant only half of the acreage of years past yet doubts he can make a profit.

Greek farmer Dimitris Filis, who grows olives, oranges and lemons, said he has “to search to find” ammonia nitrate and that the cost of fertilizing a 25-acre olive grove has doubled to 560 euros, about $310.

“Many people will not use fertilizers at all, and this, as a result, lowers the quality of the production and the production itself,” Filis said while selling his wares at an Athens farm market. “And slowly, slowly, at one point, they won’t be able to farm their land because there will be no income.”

In China, the price of potash — potassium-rich salt used as fertilizer — is up 86% in a year. Nitrogen fertilizer prices are up 39% and phosphorus fertilizer 10%.

Terry Farms, which grows produce on 2,100 acres largely in Ventura, California, has seen prices of some fertilizer formulations double; others are up 20%.

William Terry of Terry Farms in a strawberry field in Oxnard, California. Terry Farms, which grows produce on 2,100 acres, has seen prices of some fertilizer formulations double.

William Terry of Terry Farms in a strawberry field in Oxnard, California. Terry Farms, which grows produce on 2,100 acres, has seen prices of some fertilizer formulations double.

Mark J. Terrill / AP

Shifting fertilizers is risky, vice president William Terry said, because cheaper versions might not give “the crop what it needs.″

As the growing season approaches in Maine, potato farmers are grappling with a 70% to 100% increase in fertilizer prices over last year.

In Prudentopolis, in Brazil’s Parana state, farmer Edimilson Rickli showed off a warehouse that normally would be packed with fertilizer bags but has only enough to last a few weeks. He worries he’ll have to go without fertilizer when he plants wheat, barley and oats next month.

“The question is: Where Brazil is going to buy more fertilizer from?” he said.

Last month, Nigeria opened Africa’s largest fertilizer factory, which has shipped fertilizer to the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.

India is seeking more fertilizer imports from Israel, Oman, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

The Latest
He’s destroying property and setting a bad example for the children with his tantrums, and his wife wants out.
He was in good condition after the apparent drive-by shooting.
Agnieszka Rydzewski is charged with soliciting the murder of Arturo Cantu, who was allegedly gunned down earlier this week by Anthony Calderon in the southwest suburban love triangle.