How a Fertilizer Shortage Is Spreading Desperate Hunger

How a Fertilizer Shortage Is Spreading Desperate Hunger

Suleiman Chubado, a farmer in northeastern Nigeria, faces the dire consequences of a fertilizer price surge. The once-affordable essential is now a luxury, leaving his crops stunted and his family hungry.

This crisis, which has hit much of Africa, finds its origins in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, disrupting crucial fertilizer ingredients.

The ramifications ripple across lower-income nations. Scarce and costly fertilizer compounds existing challenges, including climate-related adversities and soaring staple prices.

“How can it be affecting us here?” Suleiman Chubado asked about the war in Ukraine, 3,000 miles away from his farm outside Yola, Nigeria.
“How can it be affecting us here?” Suleiman Chubado asked about the war in Ukraine, 3,000 miles away from his farm outside Yola, Nigeria.

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This breakdown in fertilizer production challenges the long-held belief in globalization’s resilience in times of crisis, underscoring the danger of shared dependence on dominant suppliers.

The Covid-19 pandemic first strained the fertilizer market, escalating transportation costs for its ingredients. The war in Ukraine exacerbated the situation, hindering potash access, a vital fertilizer component.

Furthermore, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hikes inflated the dollar’s value, driving up fertilizer costs in countries like Nigeria.

The central market in Yola, where Mr. Chubado could afford to buy only a portion of a sack of fertilizer.
The central market in Yola, where Mr. Chubado could afford to buy only a portion of a sack of fertilizer.

As of February 2022, fertilizer prices have more than doubled in 14 countries, exacerbating food insecurity, especially in West and Central Africa.

Nigeria, with nearly 90 million people facing insufficient food consumption, serves as a stark example of the crisis’s impact.

In northeastern Nigeria, desperation looms large. Farmers are shifting to less fertilizer-dependent crops, while thieves exploit the scarcity.

Wives are leaving homes in search of sustenance, children’s education suffers, and upward mobility gives way to survival instincts.

Despite the potential benefits of transitioning to organic fertilizers for soil health, immediate food security takes precedence. Inorganic fertilizers, largely supplied by dominant producers in the U.S., China, India, Russia, Canada, and Morocco, remain indispensable.

Nigeria’s reliance on global supply chains exposes vulnerabilities in times of disruption.

The pandemic’s early months witnessed shipping disruptions, impacting fertilizer ingredients’ flow. The Suez Canal blockage and surging shipping prices further compounded the issue. Phosphate costs surged, and Nigeria’s vulnerability to supply chain disruptions became glaringly apparent.

The war also triggered energy price spikes, impacting nitrogen fertilizer production. As Russia, a major gas producer, faced sanctions, nitrogen fertilizer costs soared. Potash, a crucial potassium source, faced limitations due to Belarus’s major role in its production. Sanctions on Russia and Belarus complicated matters further.

Fertilizer blending plants in Nigeria sought alternatives, turning to Canada for potash, albeit at much higher prices. By 2021, the cost of phosphates from Canada to Nigeria had risen dramatically.

Sorting grain at a market in Gombe.
Sorting grain at a market in Gombe.

In Gombe, Nigeria, Kasim Abubakar, a fertilizer merchant, faced supply delays, receiving his order months after the peak season. This year, another order went unfulfilled due to production halts at the factory. His dwindling inventory mirrored the worsening fertilizer shortage in the region.

For those who can afford fertilizer, like Mohammed Sambo, an opportunity arises amidst adversity. With support from an aid program, he borrowed money to purchase fertilizer and seeds, significantly expanding his planting this year.

However, farmers like Adamu Ibrahim, unable to afford sufficient fertilizer, face a vicious cycle of food scarcity, an inability to generate income, and soaring food prices.

The global fertilizer market may have stabilized, but for African farmers, the crisis persists. Soaring prices for essentials like fertilizer, combined with the devaluation of local currencies, amplify challenges. The cost of staple foods multiplies, and the ability to afford food, education, and basic necessities dwindles.

Aisha Hassan Jauro’s story is emblematic of this struggle. Borrowing to buy fertilizer led to devastating losses when floods destroyed her crop. With monthly loan payments and no means to generate income, she faces dire food insecurity.

Mary Bitrus with her children while farming a plot outside Yola.
Mary Bitrus with her children while farming a plot outside Yola.

In this challenging landscape, farmers must navigate not only the escalating costs of essentials but also the uncertain availability of vital resources. A trip to the market, once a routine, has become a painful reminder of dwindling resources.

Juliana Bala, in Yola, experiences firsthand the anguish of crop theft, a new threat. Half her annual income vanished, leaving her family vulnerable to hunger and depriving them of the means to buy seeds and fertilizer for the next planting season.

For many, these are the final days of self-sufficiency. As prices rise, food becomes scarce, and resources dwindle, families like Ms. Bala’s are left with uncertainty, fear, and a sense of impending catastrophe. The pandemic, fertilizer crisis, and soaring food prices echo an ominous prophecy of a world on the brink.

This story was culled from New York Times where you can read the detailed report

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