Russian war worsens fertilizer shortage and risks food supplies

KIAMBU COUNTY, Kenya (AP) – Monica Kariuki is about to give up farming. What drives her away from her 10 acres of land outside Nairobi is not bad weather, pests or mold – the traditional agricultural curses – but fertilizer: it costs too much.

Despite the fact that thousands of kilometers separate her from the battlefields of Ukraine, Kariuki and her cabbage, corn and spinach farms are indirect victims of the invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The war has pushed up the price of natural gasa key ingredient in fertilizers, and has led to severe sanctions against Russia, a major exporter of fertilizers.

Kariuki used to spend 20,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $ 175, on fertilizing his entire farm. Now she had to spend five times as much. Continuing to cultivate the land, she said, would only result in losses.

“I can not continue with the farming business. I stop farming to try something else,” she said.

Higher fertilizer prices make the world’s food supply more expensive and less abundant as farmers save on nutrients for their crops and get lower yields. While the ripples will be noticeable of grocery retailers in rich countries, the pressure on food supplies will land hardest on families in poorer countries. It could hardly have come at a worse time: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said last week that the world food price index in March reached its highest level since starting in 1990.

The fertilizer crisis further threatens to limit worldwide food supplies, which are already limited by the disruption of important grain shipments from Ukraine and Russia. The loss of these affordable supplies of wheat, barley and other grains increases the prospect of food shortages and political instability in Middle Eastern, African and some Asian countries, where millions depend on subsidized bread and cheap noodles.

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

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

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

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

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

For corn and cabbage farmer Jackson Koeth, 55, from Eldoret in western Kenya, the conflict in Ukraine was remote and confusing until he had to decide whether to move on with the planting season. Fertilizer prices had doubled compared to last year.

Koeth said he decided to continue planting, but only on half of the land in previous years. Still, he doubts he can make money with fertilizer that is so expensive.

Greek farmer Dimitris Filis, who grows olives, oranges and lemons, said “you have to search to find” ammonia nitrate and that the cost of fertilizing a 10-hectare olive grove has doubled to 560 euros ($ 310). While selling his wares at an agricultural market in Athens, he said most farmers plan to skip fertilizing their olive and orange groves this year.

“Many people will not use fertilizer at all, and as a result it lowers the quality of production and the production itself, and slowly, slowly at some point, they will not be able to cultivate their land because there will be no income, ”said Filis.

In China, the price of potassium chloride – potassium-rich salt used as a fertilizer – has risen by 86% compared to the previous year. Nitrogen fertilizer prices have risen 39% and phosphorus fertilizers have risen 10%.

In the eastern Chinese city of Tai’an, the leader of a cooperative with 35 families growing wheat and corn said fertilizer prices have risen by 40% since the beginning of the year.

“We can hardly make money,” said the manager, who would only give his last name, Zhao.

Terry Farms, which grows 2,100 acres of produce mainly in Ventura, California, has seen the prices of some fertilizer formulations double; others have risen 20%. Changing fertilizer is risky, Vice President William Terry said, because cheaper versions may not provide “the crop with what it needs as a food source.”

As the growing season approaches in Maine, potato farmers are struggling with a 70% to 100% increase in fertilizer prices from last year, depending on the mix.

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

In Prudentopolis, a city in Brazil’s Parana state, farmer Edimilson Rickli showed off a warehouse that would normally be packed with manure bags, but which only has enough to last a few more weeks. He is concerned that as the war in Ukraine shows no signs of giving up, he will have to go without fertilizer when planting wheat, barley and oats next month.

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

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

India, meanwhile, is seeking more fertilizer imports from Israel, Oman, Canada and Saudi Arabia to compensate 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. “Therefore, we need to look for opportunities to get more fertilizer in the country.”

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

“Some farmers skip the planting season and others go into some other ventures, such as buying goats to make ends meet,” said Benjamin Njenga, co-founder of the company. “So these support services go a long way for them.”

Governments help, also. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month that it issued $ 250 million in subsidies to support U.S. fertilizer production. The Swiss government has released part of its reserves of nitrogen fertilizer.

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

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

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


Asadu reported from Lagos, Nigeria and Wiseman from Washington. Contributing to this story were: 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 of Marshfield, Vermont; Dave Kolpack of Fargo, North Dakota; Kathia Martínez of Panama City; Christoph Noelting in Frankfurt; Fabiola Sánchez of Mexico City; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Morocco; Tassanee Vejpongsa and Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok; Ilan Ben Zion and Jerusalem; Edie Leader at the United Nations; and Aya Batrawy in Dubai.

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