Fertilisers: on the verge of a major food crisis?

Making agriculture so dependent on fossil fuels was a dangerous mirage rather than a revolution


Antonio Turiel and Juan Bordera

ith the price of the benchmark oil barrel(Brent) exceeding 90 dollars for the first time in eight years -coinciding with the announced end of the fracking boom/bubble-; the recent historic escalation in gas prices -which has quadrupled in price during 2021- and, consequently, in the electricity bill; or with the highest inflation in Spain in three decades -6.5% in 2021- anyone might think that the biggest problem we have is the energy problem. And they would probably be right, although the seriousness and depth of the climate problem, which in the long term is at least as serious, cannot be ignored. However, this crossroads is a ramificationbetween scarce energy and an unstable climate whose severity is often not understood: we eat fossil fuels.

And not just because they are needed to transport or refrigerate both the food itself and the materials required in the strained supply chain, but because, directly, some of the fossil fuels we extract are also used in the production of pesticides and, above all, fertilisers for "modern agriculture". About one-third of all energy used in the agricultural sector is used for manufacturing inorganic fertilisers.

Let's analyse the consequences of rising fertiliser prices. We discover that they are already causing severe problems in many countries. The high cost of soya has led Argentina to limit beef exports until 2023. Brazil has been experiencing a severe food crisis since 2018. The UN has just included Colombia among the "hunger hotspots", and not so far away, they are on the verge of a farmers' revolt in Greece. If we analyse the price escalation, we will discover a complex tangle that we had better untangle and understand well to clarify what should be done. 

The number of factors involved is enormous: geopolitical, environmental, the recovery of demand, the pandemic... but above all, energy stands out very clearly. And the relationship is direct: if the price of energy rises, so does the cost of fertilisers, transport and almost all production processes. Ergo, the escalation of food prices is inevitable, which is why the FAO anticipates a global food crisis worse than that of 2011 this year. All this without considering the speculation of the financial markets, always as clever and reasonable in allocating resources as they have been to date. 

For a full read of this essay, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.


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