Sky-high fertiliser prices have farmers worldwide scaling back its use and reducing the amount of land they’re planting, fallout from the Ukraine-Russia conflict that has some agricultural industry veterans warning of food shortages. Western sanctions on Russia, a major exporter of potash, ammonia, urea and other soil nutrients, have disrupted shipments of those key inputs around the globe. Fertiliser is key to keeping corn, soy, rice and wheat yields high. Growers are scrambling to adjust. The pivot can be seen in agricultural powerhouse Brazil, where some farmers are applying less fertiliser to their corn, and some federal legislators are pushing to open protected indigenous lands for the mining of potash. In Zimbabwe and Kenya, small farmers are reverting to using manure to nourish their crops. In Canada, one canola farmer has already stockpiled fertiliser for the 2023 season in anticipation of even higher prices ahead.

Cost and availability of fertiliser

Farmers elsewhere are making similar moves. Reuters spoke with 34 people on six continents, including grain producers, agriculture analysts, traders and farm groups. All expressed concern about the cost and availability of fertiliser. In the United States alone, fertiliser bills are expected to jump 12 per cent this year, after rising 17 per cent in 2021, according to American Farm Bureau Federation and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Some growers are contemplating switching to crops that require fewer nutrients. Others plan to cultivate less acreage. Others say they’ll simply use less fertiliser, a strategy crop experts predict will hurt yields. Production is most at risk in developing nations, whose farmers have fewer financial resources to weather the storm, said Tony Will, chief executive of Illinois-based CF Industries Holdings, a leading producer of nitrogen fertiliser.

“My concern at the moment is actually one of a food crisis on a global basis,” Will told Reuters. 

Kenyan small farmers are reverting to using manure to nourish their crops

Last week, Peru declared a state of emergency in its agriculture sector over fears of food insecurity. The decree said the nation’s planted areas have fallen 0.2 per cent since August due to rising fertiliser prices. The government is now drafting a plan to increase the country’s food supply.

Global fertiliser prices were already high prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion of its neighbour, as record natural gas and coal prices forced some fertiliser makers to cut output in that energy-hungry sector. Ukraine’s cities have been besieged by missiles, tanks and troops in what Moscow has dubbed a “special operation” to demilitarise the country. Russia denies targeting civilians in the conflict. Western nations responded with tough economic sanctions on Russia, while the United States and the European Union imposed new sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has provided support for Russia’s offensive.

Combined, Russia and Belarus accounted for more than 40 per cent of global exports of potash last year, one of three critical nutrients used to boost crop yields, Dutch lender Rabobank said this month. Additionally, Russia accounted for about 22 per cent of global exports of ammonia, 14 per cent of the world’s urea exports and about 14 per cent of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) – all key kinds of fertilisers. Sanctions have disrupted sales of fertiliser and crops from Russia.

Many Western banks and traders are steering clear of Russian supplies for fear of running afoul of the rapidly changing rules, while shipping firms are avoiding the Black Sea region due to safety concerns. It all amounts to a double whammy for the global food supply. Russia and Ukraine are major grain producers. Together they account for about 30 per cent of global wheat exports and 20 per cent of corn exports. Grain shipments through the Black Sea have already been disrupted. Stalled deliveries from those two countries have helped spur galloping global food inflation. The World Bank said last week that a number of developing countries face near-term wheat supply shortages due to their high dependence on Ukrainian exports. But the fertiliser crisis is in some respects more worrying because it could inhibit food production in the rest of the world that could help take up the slack, said Maximo Torero, chief economist for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“If we don’t resolve the problem of fertiliser, and trade of fertilisers doesn’t continue, then we’ll have a very serious problem of supply next year,” Torero told Reuters.

Brazil, the world’s biggest soybean exporter, relies heavily on imported fertilisers such as potash, which accounted for 38 per cent of the crop nutrients it used last year. Russia and Belarus were the source of half of those shipments.

Prior to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Brazilian farmers were already reducing corn plantings due to rising fertiliser prices. Soybean cultivation will likely be impacted as well, with growers expanding more slowly than in previous years, according to Agroconsult, a Brazilian agriculture consulting firm. In the west-central state of Mato Grosso, farmer Cayron Giacomelli told Reuters he has already reduced fertiliser use on his current corn crop. He said he’ll do the same when he plants soybeans later this year, a move he reckons might shrink his harvest by at least 8 per cent.

Fewer acre, less fertiliser

Giacomelli said fertiliser is hard to get and that some dealers won’t finalise sales until cargo ships dock in Brazil. He’s still kicking himself for not closing a purchase he was negotiating just before Russia invaded Ukraine. “I got distracted and now am paying more,” Giacomelli said.

Lawmakers from Brazilian farm states, meanwhile, are pushing for legislation that would open indigenous lands in the Amazon to potash mining. That measure is opposed by members of the local Mura tribe, who say mining would despoil the natural habitat upon which they depend. The bill is still making its way through the nation’s congress. In Zimbabwe, scarce and pricy imports have forced corn growers such as Boniface Mutize to make their own fertiliser.

“We mix cow dung or chicken waste with zinc,” he said.

It’s the same in rural Kenya. Farmer Mary Kamau said she, too, has slashed purchases of commercial fertiliser and is using manure to nourish the coffee and avocados she grows on 12 acres in Murang’a County. She worries about the consequences for her family.

“If I don’t get a good harvest, I don’t get good prices. And that will affect me for the next two years – it’s not just this season,” Kamau said.

In the United States, fifth-generation New Mexico farmer Mike Berry has similar worries. He recently paid $680 a tonne for liquid nitrogen to fertilise his corn crop, an “exorbitant” price he said was 232 per cent above last year’s price. Berry said he plans to cut his spring plantings of corn for livestock feed to about 300 acres from his usual 400 to 600 acres. Berry said he will also reduce applications of liquid nitrogen by about 30 per cent, which could drop his yields by 25 per cent.

Bottom line: “We’re going to produce less,” he said.