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How the war in Ukraine is affecting the world's supply of fertilizer


One of the biggest impacts from the war in Ukraine involves a product most consumers never see. Much of the world's supply of fertilizer comes from Russia, and NPR's Jackie Northam reports supply interruptions are having an effect as far away as a small farm in Kenya.

BENARD MWENJA: This farm is an old farm. We have been here for many years. So our farm, the soil has been overused.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Benard Mwenja has been working this farm among the rolling hills of Kenya's Rift Valley for three decades. He grows mostly fruit and vegetables.

MWENJA: We have onions. We have carrots that we are planting.

NORTHAM: Mwenja's farm has already been battered by climate change. This year, there's a new headache.

MWENJA: You can see, I wanted to apply some fertilizer, but the prices are very high. We understand that this is attributed to the war between the Russia and the Ukraine.

NORTHAM: The fertilizer crisis extends far beyond Mwenja's farm. Dwindling supplies and skyrocketing costs are now impacting farms around the world. Jonathan Haines is with Gro Intelligence, a data and analytics company specializing in global agriculture and climate.

JONATHAN HAINES: We saw prices going up, and they were pretty strong in the fall of 2021. Then everything kind of went extra haywire when the conflict happened in Ukraine.

NORTHAM: Haines says the cost of fertilizer is nearly three times what it was before the war - if you can get it. Russia produces about 25% of the world's nitrogen fertilizer, but that's essentially come off the market since it invaded Ukraine. The cost of natural gas, key to fertilizer production, is also soaring. Russia has sharply cut back gas exports to Europe, which Haines says has hit fertilizer production there particularly hard.

HAINES: Fifty to 60% of capacity is just offline for nitrogen fertilizer production in Europe. It's massive. And then it's - also, it's a global market. So when, you know, knock off one supplier, it has reverberations.

NORTHAM: Many countries are changing their crops or using less fertilizer, producing smaller amounts of food, says Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CAITLIN WELSH: The longer fertilizer prices remain elevated, the harder it is going to be for farmers to access fertilizer and the lower their yields are going to be. The impacts of this are going to be felt for a long time.

NORTHAM: Welsh says countries in Africa and Latin America are among the most vulnerable. It would take years and billions of dollars to expand infrastructure to produce more fertilizer. One thing that could help is a U.N. plan to get Russia's supplies back on the market. But that effort has stalled. During remarks at the Security Council meeting last week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the agreement be implemented.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: If the fertilizer market is not stabilized, next year could bring a food supply crisis. Simply put, the world may run out of food. It's essential that all states remove every remaining obstacle to the export of Russian fertilizers immediately.

NORTHAM: Sanctions against Russia are making it harder. Many shippers and insurers are wary of moving Russian goods, says Neil Roberts with Lloyd's Market Association, which resolves insurance underwriting issues.

NEIL ROBERTS: There's this extreme caution due to sanctions. So the U.S. has its own list, and the EU has one, the U.K. has one, the U.N. has one. If you're an international insurer, you are subject to all the regimes.

NORTHAM: Alzbeta Klein, the CEO of the International Fertilizer Association, says many sanctions against Russia are helpful but can have unintended consequences. Russian fertilizer has been sitting in European warehouses since the war in Ukraine broke out because of EU sanctions.

ALZBETA KLEIN: The shippers, the logistics companies can't move it because of sanctions. And it's several hundred thousand tons in various ports across Europe.

NORTHAM: The U.N. is also trying to negotiate the resumption of Russian ammonia, an important ingredient for some fertilizers, through a pipeline down to a Black Sea port. Meanwhile, back at his Kenyan farm, Benard Mwenja is worried.

MWENJA: We hear the war is not ending. If it is not ending, then how are we going to get that fertilizer if the fertilizer is coming from there?

NORTHAM: And time is running out before Mwenja starts a new planting season.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.