Increasing fertiliser and energy costs may put 100 million people at risk of malnutrition, according to a study published in the Journal Nature Food.
The war in Ukraine blocked millions of tonnes of wheat, barley, and corn, but this seems less of a driver for food costs than initially feared. Instead, a modelling study done by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK, suggests increasing energy and fertiliser costs will have a far greater impact on food prices in the coming decades.
The problem is that we don’t really understand how price increases in energy and fertiliser affect future global food prices or how they may impact human nutritional health and the environment. To cover this gap, a UK team used a global land-use computer model to simulate export restrictions and variations in production costs regarding food prices, health, and land use until 2040.
This study suggests that the combined effect of export restrictions and increased energy and fertiliser costs (which in 2022 was three times higher than at the start of 2021) could cause food costs to rise by 81% in 2012 compared to 2021 prices.
Although this factor was included in the model, export restrictions account only for a slight increase in the simulated price rises. Stopping exports from Russia and Ukraine would increase food costs in 2023 by 2.6%, compared to a 74% increase caused by increases in energy and fertiliser costs. Inevitably, these price rises will make people’s diets worse as they cannot afford what they used to buy.
The study suggests that it could cause up to one million additional deaths and more than 100 million people malnourished if the high fertiliser prices continue. The greatest increases are expected in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East.
According to the team, farmers would limit the use of fertilisers in response to the sharp increases in fertiliser costs. Without fertiliser, more land is needed to produce the same amount of food. If nothing changes, by 2030 this could lead to an increase in land used for agriculture the size of Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. Inevitably, this would have devastating consequences on deforestation, carbon emissions, and biodiversity loss.
“This could be the end of an era of cheap food. 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,” said Dr. Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study. “The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a welcome development and has largely allowed Ukraine food exports to be re-established, but the immediacy of these issues appears to have diverted attention away from the impact of fertiliser prices. While fertiliser prices are coming down from the peaks of earlier this year, they remain high, and this may still feed through to continued high food price inflation in 2023. More needs to be done to break the link between higher food prices and harm to human health and the environment.”
Alexander, P., Arneth, A., Henry, R. et al. High energy and fertilizer prices are more damaging than food export curtailment from Ukraine and Russia for food prices, health and the environment. Nat Food 4, 84–95 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00659-9