The world is about to embark on a massive experiment in food production—and there’s a very real risk that we won’t like the result.
The good news is that food never has been more abundant and, even though prices fluctuate, it’s never been more affordable.
That’s because we’re growing more food than ever before. Since 2000, we’ve boosted the harvests of the planet’s four primary crops—sugar cane, corn, wheat, and rice—by about 50 percent. Meat production has risen by nearly as much and the production of vegetable oils has more than doubled, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
A series of factors have contributed to this success story, starting with the simple determination of farmers to meet the demands of a surging global population, which now approaches 8 billion people. They’ve had lots of help. The new technology of genetically modified crops has played a big role. The introduction of safe and effective crop-protection tools has given us the ability to fend off weeds and pests. The advent of GPS-guided precision and regenerative soil practices like no-till and cover cropping that support healthy soil have made agriculture ever more efficient and sustainable.
One essential but often overlooked ingredient is nitrogen fertilizer. Its application provides an important nutrient that supports the growth of crops. For years, farmers have enjoyed easy access to it, especially in the developed world.
That’s about to change. In 2022, for the first time in memory, farmers are looking to reduce their reliance on fertilizer. We’re almost certainly going to use less of it and with that comes the risk of a reduced harvest.
This is not a choice but a necessity, driven by a sharp spike in fertilizer prices. The evidence is everywhere, but here’s what I’m seeing on my farm in the UK. For me, the cost of nitrogen fertilizer between last spring and last October lifted by 152 percent. In December, as I booked supplies for my 2022 planting program, I endured another shock: The increase had risen to 277 percent.
Should I have waited to see if the price would go down? Maybe. That’s what a lot of farmers are doing. As they calculate costs and marginal benefits, many of them will cut back on their use of fertilizer. They’ll buy less than they had wanted, apply less than they consider ideal, and cross their fingers. With so many plants running behind on production will it even be available?
There’s a chance that this could lead to positive results. With fertilizer so dear, it will drive farmers to use the product with more care than ever before. Some will turn to precision application techniques that support better use of an essential product. The price crunch could force the agricultural sector to innovate in other ways, figuring out how to do more with less. Perhaps the weather also will work in our favor, creating favorable conditions for crops to flourish even if they receive less fertilizer.
That’s the hope. The reality and risk could be very different.
With current demand for food growing, the world requires year on year record harvests.
If you fill your car’s gas tank to three-quarters, it won’t drive farther than if you had filled it up all the way. Likewise, less fertilizer almost certainly will mean lower food production. Everything I’ve learned in my 44 years of farming experience tells me this.
Unfortunately, almost nobody is talking about what we’re up against. The rising cost of fertilizer has made it into the agricultural press, but so far, the mainstream media hasn’t picked up on the potential consequences.
Governments mostly haven’t noticed either. No one is asking the obvious question: “what are the consequences?” The sooner they do, the sooner they can put it on the agendas of the G7, the G20, and the other multilateral organizations whose purpose is to confront the world’s biggest challenges.
As we engage in this high-stakes experiment, I’m worried that we don’t really know what we’re doing and that we’re failing to plan for the most predictable outcomes—and that even as everyone suffers, the biggest losers, as usual, will be people already in food poverty and with low incomes.
Farmers are small individual businesses and rarely noticed, it usually takes the weather to get them into the news. This however is global, will happen, is new and with the consequences of supply well into 2023. This is one experiment that is worth considering the risk sooner rather than later.
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