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As war in Ukraine drives up prices, southern farmers struggle to find fertilizer

Wheat farmer in India, owner of a sugar cane company in Brazil and grain producer in South Africa. Thousands of kilometers apart, the three men face the same challenge: to protect their income from the shortage of fertilizer caused by the war in Ukraine.

As the conflict enters its second month, its effects are being felt on farmers around the world, with the international price of key soil nutrients from Russia and Belarus hitting record highs last month.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, is one of the largest fertilizer producers and exporters in the world. Russia and Belarus together accounted for over 40% of global potash exports last year, for example.

Russia’s military action and the sanctions imposed by Western governments in response have raised crude oil and natural gas prices, disrupted global freight, and impacted the supply and cost of fertilizers for farmers in the developing countries.

While large agribusinesses have stockpiles of fertilizer, smallholder farmers in India, Brazil and South Africa are being left behind in the short term, as many cannot find fertilizer at all to buy, no matter what. either the price.

The crisis threatens the livelihoods of those who survive on the land – but it could also be an opportunity for farmers to adopt more sustainable methods of maintaining the fertility of their soils.

“It has been a nightmare for me, having to queue endlessly to buy fertilizer,” said Shiv Ram Singh, a rice and wheat farmer in central India’s state of Madhya Pradesh.

“(I) wake up in the middle of the night because someone has an extra bag they’re selling on the black market,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In Brazil, Fábio Castro operates a medium-sized 1,111-acre (450-hectare) mechanized sugarcane farm in the southeastern state of Sao Paulo.

Despite the larger size of his holding, the impact he faces has been similar to that of Singh, who owns just 4 acres.

As in India, small and medium farmers in Brazil buy fertilizer only when they need it, rather than in bulk. Since the beginning of the dispute, Castro has been unable to convince the sellers to offer a price.

“It’s no longer about price, it’s about logistics, about delivery,” he said. “They have no idea if they will have the product to deliver.”


Last July, riots and looting rocked South Africa, catalyzed by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. But as grandmothers and children raided grocery stores, it became clear that the chaos was also being fueled by hunger.

Now, South African farmers are warning that a fertilizer shortage could bring similar results, with hunger levels set to soar.

“The cost of fertilizers is already 60% higher than two months ago,” said Neo Masithela, national chairman of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA).

South African grain farmer Victor Teboho recently went to his local cooperative to buy fertilizer, but was told there was none available despite bags visible on the floor of the farm. ‘workshop.

These supplies had long been purchased by others, leaving farmers like Teboho to worry about his recently planted soybeans, corn, beans and wheat.

The crisis has pushed countries to scramble to find solutions.

In India, the government is expected to spend a record 1.55 trillion rupees ($20.64 billion) on subsidies to farmers and fertilizer companies this fiscal year to avert shortages and keep prices affordable.

In Africa, the African Development Bank (AfDB) aims to raise $1 billion from emergency aid facilities, concessional loans and donor governments to boost yields of wheat, maize, rice and soybeans on the continent and avert a food crisis.

In Brazil, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed for a bill to allow mining on indigenous lands, which he says would make Brazil self-sufficient in potash, a mineral that is an essential ingredient in fertilizer.

The move was propaganda by Bolsonaro mainly to rally his electoral base because the bill is unlikely to become law, said WWF Brazil director Raul do Valle, calling the bill “criminal”.

The Brazilian Senate will almost certainly sit there, he added.

Brazil has enough potash reserves outside indigenous lands and just needs to develop them, said André Guimarães of the Brazilian Coalition for Climate, Forests and Agriculture, a group of companies and individuals doing push for a low-carbon economy.

“But that’s not a solution right now,” he said, adding that potash mine development would take five to 10 years.


For some, the fertilizer crisis is a chance to tackle social issues in the agricultural sector and explore greener alternatives to mineral and chemical fertilizers.

South Africa is struggling with what economists call “two agricultures”, meaning the economic and resource divide between largely white commercial farmers and black subsistence farmers.

Boosting production among poorer black farmers through better infrastructure, farm equipment and government subsidies could help avert a collapse of the food system, AFASA’s Masithela said.

“Part of the crisis should be seen as an opportunity,” he said. Research trials in the Eastern Cape province show that farmers can produce huge tonnages of wheat fields due to the natural good health of the soil after the land has been left fallow for a period of time, it said. he noted.

In India, experts are calling for fair and equitable distribution of available fertilizers.

Failure to do so could worsen an already difficult situation for Indian farmers, the majority of whom have land holdings of less than 5 acres.

“If input costs rise, farming becomes unsustainable for small, marginalized farmers,” said Suresh Garimella, senior associate researcher at the Society for Social and Economic Research, warning that the crisis will only get worse as farmers prepare to sow their fall crops in June.

Singh, the wheat farmer, said he could switch to organic fertilizers as a long-term alternative.

“It will take me three or four years to go completely organic. In the meantime, I hope there will be regulation in the market and the (fertilizer) supply will improve,” he said.

In South Africa, Teboho said some farmers are also considering using animal manure instead of chemical fertilizers.

Enriching the soil with organic nutrients could reduce dependence on foreign markets and also be good for the environment, agricultural experts said, because producing them requires less energy than mineral-based fertilizers from Russia.

Brazil used to use locally produced organic fertilizers, but many techniques have been lost over the past 20 years as reliance on imported fertilizers has grown, said Guimarães of the climate, forests and agriculture coalition.

“There are relatively low cost solutions,” he said. But even if they are simple, they require public investment and technical assistance, which are currently lacking, he added.

Like Singh, sugar cane farm owner Castro has considered alternatives but has yet to commit to anything new.

“We’ve reached a point where we can’t make a mistake,” he said. “For us, it can be fatal. It’s a heavy word, but it’s realistic: we can go bankrupt.”

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt in Brazil, Anuradha Nagaraj in India and Kim Harrisberg in South Africa; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit