Rising food prices, escalating hunger, and the role of the fertilizer cartels

Lois Ross
Bags of Yara brand artificial fertilizer. Credit: SeppVei / Wikimedia Commons

Oct. 25, 2022

The role that the fertilizer industry plays in the rising cost of food deserves a closer look.

October 16 is World Food Day. And hot on the heels of that annual event the debate is on across Canada. Have you noticed the increase in food prices? Are you buying more or less food because of rising food prices? If Loblaws can freeze prices on its “no-name” brand products, what does that say about price gouging and grocery store profits?

Rising food prices are at the root of an increasing number of television news panels and commentaries. And B.C. students recently protested campus food prices and growing food insecurity at UBC.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food is investigating the issue. In early October a resolution proposed by NDP MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, Alistair MacGregor, initiated a committee study on inflation in the food supply chain and the rising cost of groceries, increasing corporate grocery chains profits in relation to employee wages and food prices, and what can be done to mitigate or reduce food prices, among other related issues…

These are important issues to investigate. The price a farmer is paid for a crop and the costs of the inputs used to grow that crop are also important aspects that help to tell the story and why some farm groups have been calling for an investigation into the sector. Distribution costs of food are one thing, but the costs of growing food and its impact on the stability of food production systems, climate change, and food security also required deep analysis and investigation.

One of the major inputs in agriculture is fertilizer,and the costs of nitrogen fertiliser have been climbing steeply in the past few years. But the dependence of so-called modern agriculture on artificial fertilizers is increasingly worrisome for a number of reasons. Fertilizer is a major cost input for farmers around the world, but the ever-increasing costs and use of fertilizers has to be measured against the actual benefit to the farmer and to society more generally. The dependence on artificial fertilizers packs a double whammy, if you like, in terms of unrealistic costs for producers as well as unrealistic benefits more generally, particularly as related to climate change.

Two studies have recently been published about the role of artificial fertilizers in food security. One outlines the dependence created on its use; and the other links its heavy use to lower farm incomes and an ever-increasing carbon footprint. Both provide important insights into how artificial and synthetic fertilizer use has led to hunger in parts of the world, and on how it has the potential to continue harming food production and food security.

A report by the German-based group, INKOTA, was recently translation into English. Titled “Golden Bullet or Bad Bet? New dependencies on synthetic fertilizers and their impacts on the African,” continent is loaded with statistics and analysis outlining a pending food crisis in Africa based on unsustainable food production practices largely related to the use of artificial fertilizers.

The report begins:

“A further aggravation of the global food crisis seems inevitable. Rising food prices mean that economic pressure, especially on lower-income groups, is mounting across the world, while many people in the Global South face an acute shortage of food. As in the global food crisis of 2007/08, synthetic fertilisers play a crucial role, as they are central to a crisis-prone food system that is dependent on fossil fuels such as gas and oil.

Global supply chain disruptions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have already sent fertiliser prices worldwide soaring. With Russia’s invasion to Ukraine, this price crisis is now escalating dramatically (see Figure 1). Trade sanctions and war-related disruptions in the supply of gas and other raw materials needed for synthetic fertiliser production are effectively turning fertilisers into a geopolitical weapon, with potentially dramatic consequences for farmers and consumers. The looming agricultural crisis therefore raises more fundamental questions concerning the sustainability and justice of a food system dependent on synthetic fertilisers – and thus fossil fuels.”

“Golden Bullet or Bad Bet?” then goes on to detail the roots of the nitrogen and ammonia fertilizers in the creation of bombs in WWI and WWII, the ever-escalating corporate concentration and control of the industry, fertilizers and a pending global food crisis, and the need to rapidly incorporate sustainable practices, particularly in Africa, to fend off growing hunger linked to fertilizer use. And as noted, the fundamental questions of sustainability and climate change related to fossil fuel-based artificial fertilisers is woven throughout the report. The startling content of this document is an important contribution.

The second report is a discussion paper published in September by the National Farmers Union called “Nitrogen Fertilizer: Critical Nutrient, Key Farm Input, and Major Environmental Problem.” The issue of fertilizer use is complex and this report details the ramifications of the ever-increasing use of fertilizers in an attempt to force crop production. The report is the NFU’s submission to the federal government’s consultations on its target to reduce fertilizer-related emissions by 30 per cent.

The report states:

 “This report centres the idea that the endless quest to increase agricultural yields and output by increasing farm input use—especially fertilizers—cannot continue. It points the way to a different model—one in which farmers will be more secure, net incomes will be higher and more stable, and agribusiness corporations will be dethroned as the primary decision-makers and primary beneficiaries within the system. Farmers—for the good of the planet, their communities, their net incomes, and their own futures—must find alternatives to endlessly striving for ever-higher (input-fuelled) yields.”

According to Darrin Qualmin NFU Director of Climate Crisis Policy and Action, and one of the authors of the report, GHG emissions from Canadian agriculture and farm input manufacturing are up by one-third since 1990 and are one the primary causes of rising emissions.

In a media release about the report Qualman states: “Record-high fertilizer prices and company profits cut deep into farmers’ incomes. We can reduce farmers’ dependence and vulnerability and reduce emissions at the same time.”

“Defending fertilizer is not the same as defending farmers. Fertilizer companies prosper when they sell as much as possible. Farmers prosper when they use only as much as necessary,” he emphasizes.

Both of these reports contribute key information to our understanding of the roots of hunger but also the drivers behind carbon emissions produced by the agricultural sector.

And both reports make it clear that we have to change our ways  — or face a perilous future with growing food inequality and hunger, along with an increasingly hot planet.

[Top photo: Bags of Yara brand artificial fertilizer. Credit: SeppVei / Wikimedia Commons]