In his nine years selling fertilizer to corn and rice farmers in West Africa, Malick Niang says he has never seen such a severe supply crunch—or such high prices.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, shipping companies have avoided docking at St. Petersburg, Russia, to collect goods, Mr. Niang said. That, together with the impact of the West’s financial sanctions against Moscow, means fertilizer exports from Russia—the world’s largest producer—have fallen sharply. Mr. Niang contacted sellers elsewhere, such as in Senegal and Morocco, but was told their order books are full until the end of the year.
“Maybe we will find one or two options different from Russia, but it’s going to be very expensive,” he said.
Fertilizer prices were already high before the war. They have now reached record levels amid a precipitous drop in Russian supply, according to CRU Group, which analyzes commodity markets. At the same time, more-expensive natural gas, another Russian export and a crucial ingredient in fertilizer-making, has led European fertilizer factories to scale back production.T
he result is that fertilizer is about three to four times costlier now than in 2020, with far-reaching consequences for farmer incomes, agricultural yields and food prices.
In Indonesia’s East Java province, corn farmer Nurhadi, who goes by one name, has bought half his usual fertilizer stock, relying instead on animal dung, which isn’t as effective and will result, he said, in a substantially reduced yield. In Colombia, which depends on Russia for one-fifth of its fertilizer imports, potato farmer Ana Elvira Sanabria has switched to raising cattle and growing a local fruit called uchuva, which needs less fertilizer.
“Last year at this time, most of us had land ready to plant,” she said. “This year much of it is fallow.”
Farmers’ struggles began before the war. Higher energy costs last year pushed up fertilizer prices, as did new curbs and export-licensing requirements by China, Turkey, Egypt and Russia. Faustin Lohouri Bi Tra, a farmer who grows seeds for other planters in Ivory Coast, said he watched with horror as the price of urea fertilizer quadrupled over the past nine months. “It’s like a scary movie,” he said.
Smaller harvests will hit developing countries the hardest, forcing their cash-strapped governments to import large quantities of staples such as wheat at high prices, agricultural experts say. Global food prices in February touched their highest point since the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization began collecting monthly data three decades ago.
Food insecurity is likely to worsen. The Global Network Against Food Crises, an alliance of humanitarian and development groups, estimates that by last September, 161 million people across 42 nations in 2021 faced acute malnutrition or were forced to sell assets or take other desperate measures to procure food—up 19% from the start of the year.
“I am deeply concerned that the violent conflict in Ukraine, already a catastrophe for those directly involved, will also be a tragedy for the world’s poorest people living in rural areas who cannot absorb the price hikes of staple foods and farming inputs that will result from disruptions to global trade,” said Gilbert Houngbo, president of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, last week.
The disruption in wheat supply from Ukraine could have been a boon for some of the world’s major food exporters, among them Argentina, and farmers such as Gabriel Pellizzon. Instead, Mr. Pellizzon, who grows wheat, corn and soybeans on about 3,700 acres in Argentina’s central Córdoba province, said he is likely to slash production about 30%. Omar Bachetta, a farmer in the country’s Santa Fe province, said he is cutting back on fertilizer. Urea now costs $1,400 a ton, up from $800 last year and $500 the year before, Mr. Bachetta said the farmer.
“The reduction in the sowing of wheat is going to be considerable this year,” he said.
Fertilizer producers are warning of continuing shortages. After Russia’s invasion sent European natural-gas prices to record levels, many companies reduced production of ammonium, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizers. Although prices of European natural-gas futures have fallen since early March, they remain roughly 40% higher than they were before the invasion of Ukraine.
Borealis AG, a large European fertilizer maker, said this month it is running its ammonium plants at reduced capacity. Nitrogénművek Zrt., a Hungarian producer, said it is temporarily halting ammonium production. Norway-based Yara International, one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers, said in early March that it would limit production at plants in France and Italy, bringing down its European ammonium and urea production to around 45% of capacity.
“Our concern over the coming season is that nations already in a vulnerable position will face deteriorating conditions, in particular if dependent on net imports of both food and fertilizers,” said Yara spokeswoman Kristin Nordal.
Even if natural gas were to become less costly, rebooting ammonium plants is expensive, said Tony Will, chief executive and president of CF Industries Holdings Inc., a nitrogen-fertilizer manufacturer based in Deerfield, Ill. The company has kept one of its U.K. plants shut since September.
“We need to have a window that looks like we can operate it for at least three to six months profitably. Otherwise, it’s really hard to begin the startup process,” Mr. Will said. “We don’t see the window as a likelihood at the moment.”