Fertilizer shortage threatens world's agriculture
Oct. 16, 2008
In the last few decades, an increasing reliance on industrial fertilizers has led to surging demands for the largely fossil-fuel-based products. Between 1996 and 2008 alone, fertilizer increased by 56 percent in less industrialized nations and 31 percent worldwide.
The bulk of this increased demand comes from rising meat consumption in the less industrialized world, as more people adopt a Western diet. Coupled with the recent push to devote more land to production of biofuels, the cultivation of more grain as animal feed has placed pressure on existing fertilizer production infrastructure, and a shortage has been anticipated since at least 2003.
Due to a limited supply being outstripped by demand, synthetic fertilizer prices have increased nearly threefold in the last year alone. Some Midwest dealers have experienced supply problems, leading them to restrict how much fertilizer each customer can purchase.
"If you want 10,000 tons, they'll sell you 5,000 today, maybe 3,000," said Iowa fertilizer dealer W. Scott Tinsman Jr. "The rubber band is stretched really far."
Rising prices have placed an incredible financial strain on companies that subsidize their farmers' fertilizer. In India, for example, the yearly fertilizer subsidy has increased from $4 billion in 2004-05 to an estimated $22 billion this year.
Fertilizer producers are building more than 50 new factories to eliminate the shortage, but analysts say that the supply problem will rear its head again in the long term. Because synthetic fertilizers are based heavily on fossil fuels, shortages in oil will eventually make themselves felt in the fertilizer industry. In addition, the negative ecological and health consequences of industrial fertilizer, such as creating massive "dead zones" in oceans around the world, will only worsen with increasing use.
A recent report by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended that people consume more local food and that farmers use more natural farming techniques, including non-industrial fertilizers.
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