Food prices are already skyrocketing. Some — a lot — of this comes from inflation caused by runaway government spending over the past two years. Some is from supply-chain issues. But a new problem is rearing its head, and government officials seem as likely to make it worse as to make it better.
That problem is shortages of food and fertilizer brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions enacted by the West in response.
Ukraine is a major wheat producer, but war is likely to ensure a poor spring planting and harvest. Russia is also a major grower, but sanctions and war will prevent it from exporting to most of the world.
Russia is also a major manufacturer of fertilizer; in fact, it is the world’s largest. Second on the list is . . . China, a nation aligned with Russia and notably unfriendly to the United States and the West. (Canada is a distant third.) That has people worried.
The Green Markets North American Fertilizer Index, already high, jumped 16% last Friday. Urea, a major fertilizer ingredient, went up 22%. Potash, another major ingredient (Russia is the top producer), increased 34% in Brazil, the world’s leading fertilizer importer. The price for standard “starter fertilizer” 10-34-0 is up 49% from a year ago and likely to go much higher.
Bloomberg analyst Alexis Maxwell calls it “a slow-moving disaster.”
The issue is that farmland without fertilizer is vastly less productive. Without fertilizer, corn and wheat yields in the United States would decline by more than 40%. But as prices promise to go much higher, farmers will either have to skimp on fertilizer or raise prices of their own products a lot.
Then, too, there are skyrocketing prices for gasoline and diesel, which are essential for today’s mechanized farming and for getting food to consumers. Add these increases in cost and decreases in production to the shortages likely to come from the Ukraine invasion, and we’re looking at really dramatic increases in food prices. In the West this will mean discomfort. Elsewhere it will mean starvation. Bureaucrats aren’t helping.
Some people want to put more land under cultivation. Scottish farmers and planners have asked the government to allow farmland programmed for “rewilding” to be put back into production in response to anticipated food shortages. But that’s too sensible for our green elites. Scotland’s Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity Lorna Slater — yes, that’s her full title — has flatly refused. According to Slater, “We are still in a nature emergency that hasn’t gone away . . . so it’s a no.”
Nature emergencies outrank human emergencies in the green world, so that’s not a surprise. Voters may feel differently as prices skyrocket.
The island nation of Sri Lanka offers a stark warning. A green experiment in abandoning artificial fertilizer there — encouraged by the Rockefeller Foundation — was a “brutal and swift” economic and humanitarian disaster, Foreign Policy reports.
“Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450 million worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.”
FP continues: “Human costs have been even greater. Prior to the pandemic’s outbreak, the country had proudly achieved upper-middle-income status. Today, half a million people have sunk back into poverty.”
Sri Lanka’s policy, which FP describes as a “farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing and sheer shortsightedness,” imposed enormous human damage on the nation. But don’t worry — the government and NGO officials behind it won’t miss any meals. Consequences are for the little people.
With the triple-barreled threat of inflation, soaring fuel prices and shrunken food supplies, the world faces something like the same fate, and once again those responsible are unlikely to pay the price. (But maybe some will. After all, food shortages led to the Arab Spring riots and the overturning of governments.)
Regardless, the world’s policymakers need to take a less casual approach to the well-being of the world’s population. That very much includes those in the Biden administration. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s response to concerns about fertilizer and food shortages: “Maybe sacrifices are necessary.” You can rest assured Vilsack won’t be the one making them.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.