Cost of fertiliser signals end of cheap food

Surging energy and fertiliser prices will have by far the greatest impact on food security in the coming decades, according to new research.

High fertiliser prices linked to the war in Ukraine could put an additional 100 million people globally at risk of undernourishment, a modelling study led by University of Edinburgh researchers has found.

The war in Ukraine has led to the blockade of millions of tonnes of wheat, barley and corn from the region, however reduced food exports are less of a driver of food price rises than energy and fertiliser price hikes, which are closely linked due to the energy intensive nature of fertiliser production. That’s according to the team’s global land-use computer model which simulates the effects of export restrictions and spikes in production costs on food prices, health and land use.

Mid-2022 fertiliser prices were three times higher than at the start of the previous year. Combined with spikes in energy costs this would cause a 74% rise in the cost of food in 2023. By contrast, halting exports from Russia and Ukraine would increase food costs by a relatively small 2.6%.

Food price rises would lead to many people’s diets becoming poorer, according to the study which was published in the Nature Food journal. The model suggests there could be more than 100 million people undernourished in 2023, and annual additional deaths of up to 1 million, if high fertiliser and energy prices continue alongside export restrictions. The greatest impact will be felt in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.

The modelling estimates that sharp increases in the cost of fertilisers – which researchers said are key to producing high yields – would greatly reduce their use by farmers meaning more agricultural land is needed to produce the world’s food. This in turn would have severe impacts on deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, the authors said.

They noted too however that higher energy and fertiliser prices could encourage agricultural practices with lower and more efficient use of fossil fuels and fertilisers and may also play a role in changing consumer behaviours to more sustainable practices, for example reducing consumption of animal products.

“This could be the end of an era of cheap food,” said Dr Peter Alexander, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study. “While almost everyone will feel the effects of that on their weekly shop, it’s the poorest people in society, who may already struggle to afford enough healthy food, who will be hit hardest.”

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