The cost of everything is going up, thanks to our snarled supply chains and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and unless public officials focus their minds on these challenges, our price problems will grow a lot worse before they get any better.
On my farm in Kenya, I’m looking at our global dilemma through the lens of fertilizer and other farm inputs such as seeds and fuel. Because their prices are soaring, what happens next is entirely predictable.
The equation is simple: When farming becomes more expensive, food becomes more costly—and everyone suffers, from poor people in the urban slums of our cities in Kenya to middle-class families in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.
Surging inflation influences all kinds of prices, and there are plenty of reasons for it, starting with how the pandemic’s lockdowns and their aftereffects have constricted our ability to trade and transport goods and services.
Ordinary consumers can’t do much about this except to put up with the price hikes. Here in Kenya, as costs increase, I’m either paying more for what I need or cutting back on non-essential items.
In one area, however, the rising costs have me especially worried: Fertilizer is becoming unaffordable.
During the 2021 cropping season, a 50-kg bag of DAP fertilizer in Kenya was selling for around 3,100 Kenyan shillings (KES), which is about $27 in U.S. currency. Government subsidies lowered this price for farmers to 2,500 KES.
Today, however, this same commodity is going for as much as 6,200 KES. That’s a doubling of the unsubsidized price.
This is putting an essential ingredient of agriculture beyond the reach of many farmers, myself included. Right now, I have no option but to use about half as much fertilizer as I’d like to apply to my fields. More than a million small holder farmers and households in Kenya will make similar decisions.
This result is that our crops will suffer from malnutrition—a term that we usually use in reference to people who don’t eat enough food, due to climate, economics, war, or some other hardship.
Plants pull nutrition from the soil, but we need our crops not merely to grow, but to flourish and produce the food we need.
This is the very purpose of agriculture. By cultivating crops, we extract more food from plants than we would if we gathered seeds and berries in the wild.
Fertilizer is one of farming’s most important tools. It adds potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen to the soil. These nutrients help crops to grow bigger and faster and—this is the essential part—to grow more food.
When farmers use less fertilizer, however, our crops grow less food.
That’s an iron law of agronomics. Now it combines with an iron law of economics: When farmers grow less food, the price of eating becomes dear—and the cost of feeding families spirals out of control.
The problem would be bad enough in normal times, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine worsens it. Because Ukraine is one of the world’s great food-producing nations, the war threatens to remove a breadbasket from the global market. Moreover, Russia is a huge supplier of fertilizer ingredients—and now these exports are in limbo.
The solutions won’t be easy to achieve, but at least they’re not a mystery. Diplomats around the world should make ending Russia’s attack on Ukraine their top priority.
Here in Kenya, public officials should quit thinking only about the August 9th general elections. They must concentrate on the problems that confront us right now, and that starts with the skyrocketing price of fertilizer. If they don’t come to the aid of farmers by allocating funds in the supplementary budget, they may be surprised to discover a restless group of voters on August 9.
They also must think about long-term solutions, which should involve the commercialization of GM crops, most notably maize, our staple food. These crops can help farmers reduce their input costs and grow more food—and we need them now more than ever.
If we had them now, in fact, our current crisis of inflation would still endanger us, but it would hurt a little less.
Life is full of pain, but not all of it is necessary.