As sanctions bite Russia, fertiliser shortage imperils world food supply

A potato seed harvester in action at Kisima Farm in Timau, Meru County. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]

Sky-high fertiliser prices have farmers worldwide scaling back its use and reducing the amount of land they are planting. This, as some agricultural industry veterans warn of food shortages courtesy of the fallout from the Ukraine-Russia conflict

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 fertilizer for the 2023 season in anticipation of even higher prices ahead.

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 data.

Some growers are contemplating switching to crops that require fewer nutrients. Others plan to cultivate less acreage. Others say they will 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 Mr 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," Mr Will told Reuters.

On Saturday, Peru declared a state of emergency in its agriculture sector over fears of food insecurity.

The decree said the nation’s planted areas had fallen 0.2 per cent since August due to rising fertiliser prices, and that the volume of grain Peru imports for animal feed has likewise declined over cost concerns. The government is now drafting a plan to increase the country's food supply. 

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