Fertilizer shortages are at the heart of the looming food crisis

  • Rising fertilizer prices and supply disruptions threaten global food supplies.
  • Corn, wheat, and soybeans together account for about 70% of the fertilizers used in the United States.
  • The fallout would likely hit Africa the hardest.

In the movie “Avengers: Infinity War”, the evil Thanos collects half a dozen mystical stones, snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe.

On Earth, the Marvel supervillain might have achieved his ruinous ends by doing away with artificial fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers have boosted agricultural productivity so much over the past seven decades that half the people alive today owe their existence to this often overlooked innovation, which has been described as the greatest of the 20th century.

Rising fertilizer prices and supply disruptions resulting from war and other hazards now threaten global agricultural wealth and, with it, food security. Without enough fertilizer, farmers cannot produce enough food.

Fertilizer shortage is at the heart of various emerging food crises around the world.

Maize field in Kenya.

Farm Africa said Ethiopia and Kenya were on the verge of a fourth season of poor harvests due to drought.

Caroline Karuitha/Africa Farm

Global fertilizer prices jumped 80% last year, and are expected to be even higher by the end of the year. The longer these high costs persist, the more likely people are to go hungry. Some subsistence farmers cannot afford fertilizer at current prices.

For those of us who don’t grow what we eat, rising fertilizer prices often translate into rising food prices. A United Nations food price index is off its highs but still up 23% from a year ago. And for some people, particularly in developing countries but also in wealthy ones, rising costs are making it harder to buy enough food.

“It’s a crisis,” said Harold van Es, professor of soil and water management at Cornell University. “There are always winners and losers, and when it comes to food, there are hundreds of millions of potential losers.”

Fertilizer price spikes are widespread, affecting the three most widely used types of agricultural additives – nitrogen, which alone sustains more than half the world’s population, as well as phosphorus and potassium.

In the United States, these three main types of fertilizers make up most of what farmers need to maintain crop yields. And the higher costs of these fertilizers mean even more pressure on farmers, as well as higher grocery bills. That’s because America uses staple foods like corn, wheat, and soybeans to do everything from feed livestock to making baked goods and producing vegetable oil. And corn, wheat, and soybeans together account for about 70% of the fertilizers used in the United States.

What is the cause of the problem?

There are as many culprits behind the fertilizer mess as there are heirloom vegetables in a roadside farm stand: higher energy costs – for oil, coal and natural gas, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizers – are one.

Then add global supply shocks resulting from bad weather and the war in Ukraine. The World Bank said the conflict could fuel hunger and malnutrition in low-income countries in North Africa, Asia and the Near East.

There are other factors behind the crisis. A mix of sanctions on fertilizer producers, including Belarus, and moves by China and Russia to limit the fertilizers they send overseas are choking off some of the flow that would normally reach global markets.

Ongoing supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and years of insufficient investment in production capacity are also playing a role.

How bad will it get?

In the United States, fertilizer costs for farmers jumped more than 60% last year, with nitrogen fertilizer prices nearly doubling and potash fertilizer prices jumping more than 70%.

“Agriculture is really good at resolving what we call supply shocks,” said David Widmar, agricultural economist and managing partner at Agricultural Economic Insights. “What we struggle with is when everything gets tight.”

High food prices are pushing farmers to plant more crops, such as corn, which accounts for about half of the commercial fertilizer used in the United States. The increase in production could help lower maize prices over time. But before that, each new row of corn adds to the demand for fertilizer. The Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, reported that a sharp rise in prices for corn harvested in 2021 from mid-2020 boosted demand for fertilizer.

The World Bank predicts that fertilizer prices will jump nearly 70% this year before falling 11% next year.

Are there any fixes?

To get by, some farmers will use less. Silas Muchiri uses about half as much fertilizer as he used to on his small farm in Kenya, where he grows and raises goats to feed his family.

Muchiri began reducing his fertilizer use before world prices soared last year by placing his soybean and maize crops close together on his 2-acre plot. The setup results in a thick thicket of greenery and allows one type of plant to provide nutrients that benefit another.

His efforts, along with steps such as applying manure where it is most likely to be taken up by the roots, have helped Muchiri, 52, increase what he produces for himself, his wife and their two children. This increase, plus the money he saves on commercial fertilizer, means he can keep more of what he earns by selling in the local market.

“Unlike before, now I can pay school fees,” Muchiri said, reached by video at his farm in Embu County, Kenya, northeast of Nairobi.

Moïse Mbogo in front of a cornfield.

Moses Mbogo, a farmer and village advisor participating in a regenerative agriculture project with the nonprofit Farm Africa in Embu County, Kenya, on his maize and climbing bean farm.

Caroline Karuitha/Africa Farm

Other farmers who can are also reducing their expenses. But for many, there is a limit to what they can do without and still get adequate harvests to feed a growing world population.

The high costs could one day cause some farmers to rely less on artificial fertilizers and instead use cover crops and more animal by-products, such as chicken manure. Farmers could also become more discerning about how much fertilizer they use by testing the soil more often to determine what nutrients are needed. Measures such as crop rotation could also help.

Finding alternatives and using less could be a good thing as fertilizers made from fossil fuels exacerbate the climate crisis. Yet they are crucial, especially in tropical regions, like Brazil, which tend to have poor soils.

Some fertilizer producers are also increasing their production. The World Bank expects price increases for urea, a nitrogen fertilizer, to start easing next year as new production in Brunei, Nigeria and India is expected to come online.

Where will the challenges hurt the most?

The result of soaring fertilizer prices and supply disruptions is expected to hit Africa the hardest.

Anastasia Mbatia, agriculture technical officer for the nonprofit Farm Africa, which facilitated Insider’s video call with Muchiri, said countries like Ethiopia and Kenya were on the brink of a fourth season of crop failure due to drought.

Higher costs mean that commercial fertilizers will be out of reach for farmers who are already struggling to feed their families.

“We’re going to expect another impact from less fertilizer use,” she said. Mbatia expects many farmers to fall further behind without help, she said, adding: “Instead of getting out of poverty, they are going deeper.


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