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Agriculture

Russian war worsens fertilizer crunch, risking food supplies

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KIAMBU COUNTY, Kenya (AP) — Monica Kariuki is about ready to give up on farming. What is driving her off her 10 acres of land outside Nairobi isn’t bad weather, pests or blight — the traditional agricultural curses — but fertilizer: It costs too much.

Despite thousands of miles separating her from the battlefields of Ukraine, Kariuki and her cabbage, corn and spinach farm are indirect victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The war has pushed up the price of natural gas, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and has led to severe sanctions against Russia, a major exporter of fertilizer.

Kariuki used to spend 20,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $175, to fertilize her entire farm. Now, she would need to spend five times as much. Continuing to work the land, she said, would yield nothing but losses.

“I cannot continue with the farming business. I am quitting farming to try something else,’’ she said.

Higher fertilizer prices are making the world’s food supply more expensive and less abundant, as farmers skimp on nutrients for their crops and get lower yields. While the ripples will be felt by grocery shoppers in wealthy countries, the squeeze on food supplies will land hardest on families in poorer countries. It could hardly come at a worse time: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said last week that its world food-price index in March reached the highest level since it started in 1990.

The fertilizer crunch threatens to further limit worldwide food supplies, already constrained by the disruption of crucial grain shipments from Ukraine and Russia. The loss of those affordable supplies of wheat, barley and other grains raises the prospect of food shortages and political instability in Middle Eastern, African and some Asian countries where millions rely on subsidized bread and cheap noodles.

“Food prices will skyrocket because farmers will have to make profit, 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 U.N. says Russia is the world’s No. 1 exporter of nitrogen fertilizer and No. 2 in phosphorus and potassium fertilizers. Its ally Belarus, also contending with Western sanctions, is another major fertilizer producer.

Many developing countries — including Mongolia, Honduras, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Mexico and Guatemala — rely on Russia for at least a fifth of their imports.

The conflict also has driven up the already-exorbitant price of natural gas, used to make nitrogen fertilizer. The result: European energy prices so high that some fertilizer companies “have closed their businesses 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, of Eldoret in western Kenya, the conflict in Ukraine was distant and puzzling until he had to decide whether to go ahead with the planting season. Fertilizer prices had doubled from last year.

Koeth said he decided to keep planting but only on half the acreage of years past. Yet he doubts he can make a profit with fertilizer so costly.

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 (25-acre) olive grove has doubled to 560 euros ($310). While selling his wares at an Athens farm market, he said most farmers plan to skip fertilizing their olive and orange groves this year.

“Many people will not use fertilizers at all, and this as a result, lowers the quality of the production and the production itself, and slowly, slowly at one point, they won’t be able to farm their land because there will be no income,’’ Filis said.

In China, the price of potash — potassium-rich salt used as fertilizer — is up 86% from a year earlier. Nitrogen fertilizer prices have climbed 39% and phosphorus fertilizer is up 10%.

In the eastern Chinese city of Tai’an, the manager of a 35-family cooperative that raises wheat and corn said fertilizer prices have jumped 40% since the start of the year.

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

Terry Farms, which grows produce on 2,100 acres largely in Ventura, California, has seen prices of some fertilizer formulations double; others are up 20%. Shifting fertilizers is risky, vice president William Terry said, because cheaper versions might not give “the crop what it needs as a food source.”

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

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

In Prudentopolis, a town in Brazil’s Parana state, farmer Edimilson Rickli showed off a warehouse that would normally be packed with fertilizer bags but has only enough to last a few more weeks. He’s worried that, with the war in Ukraine showing no sign of letting up, he’ll have to go without fertilizer when he plants wheat, barley and oats next month.

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

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

India, meanwhile, is seeking more fertilizer imports from Israel, Oman, Canada and Saudi Arabia to make up for lost shipments from Russia and Belarus.

“If the supply shortage gets worse, we will produce less,” said Kishor Rungta of the nonprofit Fertiliser Association of India. “That’s why we need to look for options to get more fertilizers in the country.”

Agricultural firms are providing support for farmers, especially in Africa where poverty often limits access to vital farm inputs. In Kenya, Apollo Agriculture is helping farmers get fertilizer and access to finance.

“Some farmers are skipping the planting season and others are going into some other ventures such as buying goats to cope,” said Benjamin Njenga, co-founder of the firm. “So these support services go a long way for them.”

Governments are helping, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month that it was issuing $250 million in grants to support U.S. fertilizer production. The Swiss government has released part of its nitrogen fertilizer reserves.

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

The market already was “super, super tight” before the war, said Kathy Mathers of the Fertilizer Institute trade 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 in Marshfield, Vermont; Dave Kolpack in Fargo, North Dakota; Kathia Martínez in Panama City; Christoph Noelting in Frankfurt; Fabiola Sánchez in Mexico City; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Tarik El-Barakah in Rabat, Morocco; Tassanee Vejpongsa and Elaine Kurtenbach in Bangkok; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Edie Lederer at the United Nations; and Aya Batrawy in Dubai.

Geoffrey Kaviti, Chinedu Asadu And Paul Wiseman, The Associated Press

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Agriculture

Avian flu causing turkey shortage ahead of Christmas: BC Poultry Association

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By Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver

The avian flu is causing a turkey shortage in British Columbia, the BC Poultry Association said, warning it could pose a challenge for customers ahead of the high-demand Christmas season.

“It’s a terrible time of year for this to have to happen,” spokeswoman Amanda Brittain said in an interview.

“Some farmers have turkeys all year round, but Thanksgiving and Christmas are the primary consumption events for turkey, so it’s prime turkey growing season right now and unfortunately they are being hit by avian influenza.”

She said the group is anticipating a 20 per cent drop in available turkeys compared to previous years, but there are currently no shortages of eggs or chicken.

Brittain said the spread of the virus has been unprecedented this year across North America and especially troubling during migratory seasons in the spring and fall.

“It started picking up again in the fall and then in November, (B.C.) got hit really hard with a number of infections,” she said.

The Canadian Food Ienspection Agency’s latest available data shows 866,200 birds have been impacted by the H5N1 strain of avian flu this year in British Columbia. It shows 43 currently infected premises in the province as of Wednesday, while 21 others have recovered.

Avian flu is spread through contact with an infected bird or its feces or nasal secretions. Farm birds that go outside are most at risk because they can come in direct contact with infected wild birds or their feces.

Humans can also inadvertently carry the infection into a barn on their shoes or clothing, but the agency has said no human cases have been detected in Canada and the illness is not considered a significant concern for healthy people who are not in regular contact with infected birds.

Importing turkey for the holiday season could also be a challenge. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has set restrictions on imports of live birds, bird products and by-products from U.S. states affected by the flu.

The U.S. Centre for Disease Control said in a news release Saturday that more than 49 million birds in 46 states have either died as a result of bird flu virus infection or have been culled due to exposure to infected birds since early 2022.

The B.C. Egg Marketing Board has said about 80 per cent of the province’s 578 poultry farms are located in the Fraser Valley, which sits in the path of a main bird migration route.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2022.

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Agriculture

USAID head urges crisis-hit Sri Lanka to tackle corruption

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By Krishan Francis in Colombo

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A visiting U.S. diplomat on Sunday urged Sri Lankan authorities to tackle corruption and introduce governance reforms alongside efforts to uplift the country’s economy as a way out of its worst crisis in recent memory.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power told reporters that such moves will increase international and local trust in the government’s intentions.

“Assistance alone would not put an end to this country’s woes,” Power said. “I stressed to the Sri Lankan president in my meeting earlier today that political reforms and political accountability must go hand in hand with economic reforms and economic accountability.”

She said that international investor confidence will increase as the government tackles corruption and proceeds with long sought governance reforms. “As citizens see the government visibly following through on the commitment to bring about meaningful change, that in turn increases societal support for the tough economic reforms ahead,” she said.

During her two-day visit, Power announced a total of $60 million in aid to Sri Lanka. After meetings with farmers’ representatives at a rice field in Ja-Ela, outside of the capital Colombo on Saturday, she announced $40 million to buy agrochemicals in time for the next cultivation season.

Agricultural yields dropped by more than half for the past two cultivation seasons because authorities had banned the imports of chemical fertilizers ostensibly to promote organic farming. She said that according to the World Food Program, more than 6 million people — nearly 30% of Sri Lanka’s population — are currently facing food insecurity and require humanitarian assistance.

On Sunday, she said an additional $20 million will be given to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to vulnerable families.

Sri Lanka has faced its worst crisis after it defaulted on foreign loans, causing shortages of essentials like fuel, medicines and some food items.

It has reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9 billion package to be disbursed over four years. However, the program hinges on Sri Lanka’s international creditors giving assurances on loan restructuring. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt is more than $51 billion of which $28 billion must be repaid by 2027.

Power said that the U.S. stands ready to assist with debt restructuring and reiterated that it is imperative that China, one of the island nation’s bigger creditors, cooperate in this endeavor.

Infrastructure like a seaport, airport and a network of highways built with Chinese funding did not earn revenue and are partly blamed for the country’s woes.

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