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Fertilizer Shortages Could Predict Global Food Crisis

Dairy famers and others with large piles of animal manure are sitting pretty as this once hard-to-unload commodity is now fetching a hefty price.

The cost of commercial fertilizers is soaring amidst global shortages worsened by Russia’s war on Ukraine, and agricultural farmers around the world are frantically seeking less expensive or more readily available alternatives.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the Yahoo News article, In the U.S., manure is “hot commodity” amid commercial fertilizer shortage, by P.J. Huffstutter, Tom Polansek, and Bianca Flowers, April 6, 2022; the National Geographic article, Global food crisis looms as fertilizer supplies dwindle, by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., May 23, 2022; and the YouTube videos in the Spotlight. Image source: Pixtal/AGE Fotostock

Discussion Questions:

1.  How has the availability of manure and manure spreaders changed over the last year as a result of increasing costs in the fertilizer supply chain?

Guidance: One farmer cited in the Yahoo News article said that six months ago he was worried about not having enough space to store the manure from his dairy cows, so he reached out to local farmers, offering it for free.  No one was interested.  Now he is glad he didn’t, as farmers around the United States are scrambling to buy animal manure as a substitute for expensive chemical fertilizers.

It is also interesting to note what happens to byproducts of a process such as raising dairy cattle.  In this case, there is now a relatively high price tag associated with this previously unsaleable commodity.

Likewise, manure spreaders, used to put the manure on the ground, are also in short supply, and manufacturers are unable to keep up with demand.

2. What are some of the sustainability issues related to the use of animal manure?

Guidance: One might argue that making good use of a natural fertilizer like manure is a sustainable business practice.  Rather than having to dispose of animal waste by some other means, using it to create more food crops is repurposing it in a positive way.  In addition, making industrial fertilizer consumes a lot of energy, and prices have been rising on natural gas and coal.  The price of nitrogen fertilizer, for instance, has quadrupled in the last two years, while phosphate and potash prices have tripled.

Some argue, however, that animal manure is expensive to transport.  With fuel costs rising, getting the manure to one’s farm will be pricier than ever.  Additionally, there are a lot of regulations on the manure business, as some worry about possible contamination of water systems like streams and groundwater.

In the past some might have steered away from its use due to these concerns, but now, with needing to find enough fertilizer to keep up with global food demands, farmers are once again gravitating towards manure.  As with many sustainability issues, there are often no easy, clear cut answers.

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