Africa Needs More, Not Less, Fertilizer
Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated food shortages—already
worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic—and shed light on global agriculture’s massive nutrient and energy needs. Most fertilizers are made from coal or natural gas, and Western sanctions on Russia, which is the world’s top fertilizer exporter, have further increased natural gas and fertilizer prices.
In June, the cost of fertilizer nearly surpassed its August 2008 peak. As a result, farmers could be forced to reduce global fertilizer use by as much as 7 percent next season—the largest decline since 2008. Use is projected to fall the most in sub-Saharan Africa.
In May, the president of the African Development Bank warned that fertilizer shortages could lead to a 20 percent decline in food production on the continent.
These fertilizer shortages are a burgeoning crisis: Reduced access to fertilizer can dramatically cut food output and devastate a national economy.
After Sri Lanka suddenly banned the import and use of synthetic fertilizers in favor of organic alternatives in April 2021, its domestic rice production fell by at least 40 percent during the growing season that ended this March, and its domestic production of tea—the country’s largest export—fell by 15 percent between January and March, to its lowest level since 2009.
The government removed the ban in November 2021 but not before it had undermined the next year’s crop. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate farmers for their losses.
Some global efforts have approached this challenge head on. The United States has spearheaded the $500 million Global Fertilizer Challenge to spur investment in food security while seeking to lower agricultural carbon emissions, but far more is needed. Meanwhile, other actors have hesitated.
The European Commission has opposed a plan to support expanding fertilizer production in Africa because it would clash with the European Union’s climate goals. (Fertilizer production and use account for about 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.)
But as EU countries expand domestic and overseas fossil fuel infrastructure to reduce reliance on Russian energy, it is hypocritical to limit the agricultural potential of other countries to meet green goals.
Restricting aid to African countries for fertilizer production because it conflicts with climate goals, while also demanding natural gas from the continent, is absurd and unfair.
Supporting these countries through a crisis requires increased financing for fertilizer production, getting back to the bread-and-butter business of development: large-scale resource and industrial development.
Africa has untapped potential in both energy and agriculture, but without increasing fertilizer production, its food output will continue to lag behind other regions.