Rising fertilizer prices and supply disruptions are threatening the world's food supply.
Corn, wheat, and soybeans together take about 70% of the fertilizer used in the US.
The fallout would likely hit hardest in Africa.
In the film "Avengers: Infinity War," the evil Thanos gathers 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 fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizers have boosted agricultural productivity so much in the past seven decades or so that half of 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 are now threatening the world's agricultural bounty, and with it, food security. Without enough fertilizer, farmers can't grow enough food.
The fertilizer shortage is at the heart of various food crises emerging around the world.
Global prices of fertilizer jumped by 80% last year, and they're forecast to be higher still by year's end. The longer these heightened costs persist, the more people will be at risk of going hungry. Some subsistence farmers can't afford to purchase fertilizer at the current prices.
For those of us who don't grow what we eat, higher fertilizer prices often get passed along as higher food prices. A UN 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 affluent ones, cost increases are making it harder to afford enough food.
"It's a crisis," said Harold van Es, a 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 people who potentially are losers."
The price spikes for fertilizer are widespread, affecting the three most widely used types of agricultural additives — nitrogen, which alone supports more than half of the world's population, as well as phosphorus and potassium.
In the US, these three main fertilizer types account for most of what farmers need to sustain crop yields. And higher costs for these fertilizers translate to even more pressure on farmers, as well as higher grocery bills. That's because America uses staples such as corn, wheat, and soybeans to do everything from feeding livestock to making baked goods and producing vegetable oil. And corn, wheat, and soybeans together account for about 70% of the fertilizer used in the US.
What's causing the problem?
There are as many culprits behind the fertilizer mess as there are heirloom vegetables at a roadside farm stand: Higher energy costs — for oil, coal, and natural gas, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizers — are one.
Then, add in global supply shocks resulting from poor weather and the war in Ukraine. The World Bank said the conflict could fan hunger and malnutrition in low-income countries in northern 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 abroad are choking off some of the flow that would normally make it into world markets.
Lingering supply-chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic and years of insufficient investment in production capacity also play a role.
How bad will it get?
In the US, farmers' costs for fertilizer surged more than 60% last year, with nitrogen fertilizer prices almost doubling and potash fertilizer prices jumping more than 70%.
"Agriculture is really good at fixing what we call supply shocks," said David Widmar, an agricultural economist and a 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 US. Increased production could help bring down corn prices, eventually. But before then, every new row of corn adds to fertilizer demand. The Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, reported that a big price increase in corn harvested in 2021 from mid-2020 drove demand for fertilizer.
The World Bank projects that fertilizer prices will jump almost 70% this year before pulling back 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 once did on his small farm in Kenya, where he grows crops and raises goats to feed his family.
Muchiri began slashing his fertilizer use before global prices surged last year by placing his soybean and maize crops close together on his 2-acre plot. The configuration yields a riotous thicket of green and allows one plant type to provide nutrients that benefit another.
His efforts, along with steps such as applying manure where it's most likely to be absorbed by roots, have helped Muchiri, 52, boost what he produces for himself, his wife, and their two children. That increase, plus the money he saves on commercial fertilizer, means he can keep more of what he earns from selling at the local market.
"Unlike before, I'm able now to pay school fees," said Muchiri, reached by video on his farm in Embu County, Kenya, northeast of Nairobi.
Other farmers who can are cutting back as well. But for many, there's a limit to how much they can do without and still achieve adequate harvests to feed a growing global population.
High costs could one day push some farmers to depend less on artificial fertilizers and instead use cover crops and more animal byproducts, such as manure from chickens. Farmers could also become more judicious about how much fertilizer they're using by testing soil more often to determine which nutrients are needed. Steps such as rotating crops could also help.
Finding alternatives and using less could be good because fertilizers made from fossil fuels exacerbate the climate crisis. Yet they're crucial, particularly in tropical areas, such as Brazil, that tend to have poor soil.
Some fertilizer producers are also ramping up production. The World Bank forecasts that price hikes for urea, a nitrogen fertilizer, should begin to lessen next year because new production in Brunei, Nigeria, and India is expected to come online.
Where will the challenges hurt most?
The result of the surging fertilizer prices and supply disruptions is likely to hit hardest in Africa.
Anastasia Mbatia, a technical manager for agriculture for the nonprofit Farm Africa, which facilitated Insider's video call with Muchiri, said countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya were on the brink of a fourth season of crop failures because of drought.
Higher costs mean commercial fertilizer will be out of reach for farmers already struggling to feed their families.
"We are going to expect another impact from less use of fertilizer," she said. Mbatia expects many farmers will fall further behind without help, she said, adding, "Instead of getting out of poverty, they're sinking further."
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