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
North Dakota farmland purchase tied to Gates stirs emotion
By Dave Kolpack in Fargo
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The sale of a couple thousand acres of prime North Dakota farmland to a group tied to Bill Gates has stirred emotions over a Depression-era law meant to protect family farms and raised questions about whether the billionaire shares the state’s values.
Gates is considered the largest private owner of farmland in the country with some 269,000 acres across dozens of states, according to last year’s edition of the Land Report 100, an annual survey of the nation’s largest landowners. He owns less than 1 percent of the nation’s total farmland.
The state’s attorney general has asked the trust that acquired the North Dakota land to explain how it plans to use it in order to meet rules outlined in the state’s archaic anti-corporate farming law. It prohibits all corporations or limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland or ranchland, with some exceptions.
“I don’t know that it’s quite as volatile a situation as some have depicted,” North Dakota Republican Attorney General Drew Wrigley told The Associated Press Thursday. “It’s taken off, it’s all over the planet, but it’s not me sticking a finger in the eye of Bill Gates. That’s not what this is.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Doug Goehring, told a North Dakota TV station that many people feel they are being exploited by the ultra-rich who buy land but do not necessarily share the state’s values. About 2100 acres (849.84 hectares) of land were sold in the deal, AgWeek reported.
Goehring, who is currently on a state-sponsored trade mission to the United Kingdom, did not immediately respond to a list of questions emailed by the AP.
“I’ve gotten a big earful on this from clear across the state, it’s not even from that neighborhood,” Goehring told KFYR-TV. “Those people are upset, but there are others that are just livid about this.”
Charles V. Zehren, a spokesman for Gates’ investment firm, declined Thursday to comment to the AP.
Wrigley said the corporate farming inquiry goes out “as a matter of course” when his office is notified of farmland sales, in this case Red River Trust’s $13.5 million purchase of property in two counties from wealthy northeastern North Dakota potato growers Campbell Farms. Phone calls to Campbell Farms went unanswered.
“It’s meant to get everybody up to speed on what the ownership arrangement is and what their intentions are for the land,” Wrigley said. “If it complies with state law, the matter goes forward. If not, they’re informed they’re going to have to divest of the land.”
Corporations are exempted from the law if the land is necessary “for residential or commercial development; the siting of buildings, plants, facilities, industrial parks, or similar business or industrial purposes of the corporation or limited liability company; or for uses supportive of or ancillary to adjacent non agricultural land for the benefit of both land parcels,” the law reads.
It’s not the first test for a statute that was passed in 1932. A federal judge in 2018 ruled the law constitutional after a conservative farm group argued that it limits business options for producers and interferes with interstate commerce by barring out-of-state corporations from being involved in North Dakota’s farm industry.
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft executive whose campaign received $100,000 from Microsoft co-founder Gates when Burgum first won in 2016, declined to comment on the farmland sale. The Republican governor stayed down the middle when asked his opinion of the anti-corporate farming law, which he and the Legislature expanded in 2019 to allow second cousins in the mix of ownership.
“The governor strongly supports family farms and is open to discussions about cutting red tape that puts North Dakota farmers at a disadvantage compared with neighboring states and ensuring that our ranchers and farmers can succeed and grow their operations, helping rural communities to thrive,” Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
Food prices soar to record levels on Ukraine war disruptions
By Nicole Winfield in Rome
ROME (AP) — Prices for food commodities like grains and vegetable oils reached their highest levels ever last month largely because of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the “massive supply disruptions” it is causing, threatening millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere with hunger and malnourishment, the United Nations said Friday.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said its Food Price Index, which tracks monthly changes in international prices for a basket of commodities, averaged 159.3 points last month, up 12.6% from February. As it is, the February index was the highest level since its inception in 1990.
FAO said the war in Ukraine was largely responsible for the 17.1% rise in the price of grains, including wheat and others like oats, barley and corn. Together, Russia and Ukraine account for around 30% and 20% of global wheat and corn exports, respectively.
While predictable given February’s steep rise, “this is really remarkable,” said Josef Schmidhuber, deputy director of FAO’s markets and trade division. “Clearly, these very high prices for food require urgent action.”
The biggest price increases were for vegetable oils: that price index rose 23.2%, driven by higher quotations for sunflower seed oil that is used for cooking. Ukraine is the world’s leading exporter of sunflower oil, and Russia is No. 2.
“There is, of course, a massive supply disruption, and that massive supply disruption from the Black Sea region has fueled prices for vegetable oil,” Schmidhuber told reporters in Geneva.
He said he couldn’t calculate how much the war was to blame for the record food prices, noting that poor weather conditions in the United States and China also were blamed for crop concerns. But he said “logistical factors” were playing a big role.
“Essentially, there are no exports through the Black Sea, and exports through the Baltics is practically also coming to an end,” he said.
Soaring food prices and disruption to supplies coming from Russia and Ukraine have threatened food shortages in countries in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia where many people already were not getting enough to eat.
Those nations rely on affordable supplies of wheat and other grains from the Black Sea region to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and bargain noodles, and they now face the possibility of further political instability.
Other large grain producers like the United States, Canada, France, Australia and Argentina are being closely watched to see if they can quickly ramp up production to fill in the gaps, but farmers face issues like climbing fuel and fertilizer costs exacerbated by the war, drought and supply chain disruptions.
In the Sahel region of Central and West Africa, the disruptions from the war have added to an already precarious food situation caused by COVID-19, conflicts, poor weather and other structural problems, said Sib Ollo, senior researcher for the World Food Program for West and Central Africa in Dakar, Senegal.
“There is a sharp deterioration of the food and nutrition security in the region,” he told reporters, saying 6 million children are malnourished and nearly 16 million people in urban areas are at risk of food insecurity.
Farmers, he said, were particularly worried that they would not be able to access fertilizers produced in the Black Sea region. Russia is a leading global exporter.
“The cost of fertilizers has increased by almost 30% in many places of this region due to the supply disruption that we see provoked by a crisis in Ukraine,” he said.
The World Food Program has appealed for $777 million to meet the needs of 22 million people in the Sahel region and Nigeria over six months, he said.
To address the needs of food-importing countries, the FAO was developing a proposal for a mechanism to alleviate the import costs for the poorest countries, Schmidhuber said. The proposal calls for eligible countries to commit to added investments in their own agricultural productivity to obtain import credits to help soften the blow.
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