Today, the world’s population is roughly 8 billion. It wasn’t so long ago that our planet had much less people on it, but medical, scientific and economic advances have led to exponential growth, particularly over the past century.
Regarding fertilizer – invented in 1913 by Fritz Haber – about half of the people in the world wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this plant food. And now, we are increasingly in short supply of this critical substance, which helps feed roughly 4 billion people.
According to a recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the world is experiencing prolonged challenges in the fertilizer trade, creating significant concerns over global food security.
It is not difficult to see why.
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Russia and its neighbour Belarus were the world’s top fertilizer exporters in 2020 (the latest year with available data), accounting for roughly 20 per cent of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash types traded on global markets. China was the second largest exporter at 12.2 per cent, followed by Canada, the United States, and Morrocco. Additionally, the World Bank says that Russia accounted for 16 per cent of urea (a nitrogen source) exports and 12 per cent of phosphate exports. Together, Russia and Belarus were responsible for 40 per cent of global potash exports.
The recent War in Ukraine has undoubtedly exacerbated challenges in global fertilizer trade and food security, contributing to new trade restrictions and soaring natural gas prices.
Natural gas is an important feedstock for fertilizer, and the resulting challenges in global markets are already threatening farmers and food consumers worldwide. Because fertilizer companies draw on the same gas feedstock as does power generation, farmers and food consumers are typically hit twice as hard by natural gas shortages.
Potash is just as critical for food security; 95 per cent of production is used to produce fertilizers which support plant growth, increase crop yields, enhance water retention, and improve disease resistance.
To make matters worse, up to 70 per cent of Europe’s fertilizer plants shut down in 2022 as natural gas prices soared after the war began. As recently reported by the New York Times, farmers in nations as far as Nigeria can no longer afford fertilizer, stunting crop yields for corn and other essential produce.
The future of agriculture is far from certain.
But Canada does hold some strong cards. Potassium, for example, is the third major plant and crop nutrient after nitrogen and phosphorous. Canada is the world’s largest potash producer, made up of salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form.
New investment by BHP into Saskatchewan’s Jansen potash mine - to be one of the largest in the world - is encouraging, and a step in the right direction to underpin global food security.
However, even as disruptions to the fertilizer supply chain are raising food prices and increasing malnutrition for millions of consumers across Africa and in parts of Asia, a decision in Canada earlier this year to curtail nitrogen use by 30 per cent by 2030 comes at what seems the worst possible time.
Perhaps we should be slightly comforted by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s comments in Saskatchewan that she has “a lot of confidence in the good judgement of Canadian farmers… in minimizing their use of fertilizer, ensuring they’re using enough to grow the food we need, but being very economical about it.”
But our view is that farmers – working together with provinces and the fertilizer sector itself – are already in a strong position to reduce emissions while increasing yields, as they have the know-how and experience.
Take a made-in-Canada solution like the “4Rs” nutrient stewardship program recently renewed in Saskatchewan, among other places across Canada. The 4Rs incorporate “the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.”
Fertilizer Canada, a program proponent, says signatory producers can enhance their environmental sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing crop production.
These are among the toughest, most challenging times in recent decades. Rather than risk smaller yields and lower income for farmers as a result of reduced fertilizer use and higher prices, isn’t it time we turned to our farmers for a solution?
As far as the big picture goes, there really isn’t anyone more knowledgeable in his or her field. And, when it comes to reducing emissions, our farmers have proven time and time again that they are responsible stewards of the planet.
For example, did you know that Canadian farmers may have already reduced nitrogen fertilizer emissions by 30%, or, since 1981, there has been a 10% reduction in net farming emissions in Canada, primarily driven by beneficial management practices in regions where crop production is most intensive?
The world's population is growing, set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 -- up from about 8 billion today. With global food demand projected to grow 50% by 2050, we will need all the food we can get while doing our best to reduce the environmental impacts associated with feeding the future world.
We prefer the world's food supply comes from the planet's most sustainable and reliable farmers as much as possible, don't you?
Let our farmers be farmers; without them, the world would be a much hungrier place.
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