Food production in Africa is complicated by climate change and the use of fertilizers which increase food production but which also create green house gases and create other environmental harm.
The UN has been in negotiations with both Russia and Ukraine to restart Russia’s ammonia pipeline. Before its closure due to the Ukraine War, the pipeline pumped up to 2.5 million tons of ammonia per year from Russia's Volga region to Ukraine's Black Sea port of Pivdennyi.
Ammonia is used as fertilizer or converted to nitrogen fertilizer, and the pipeline’s closure is said to play a major role in the food and fertilizer crisis triggered first by COVID and now by the Ukraine War. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered to reopen it in exchange for Ukrainian POWs, but Russia declined. Both countries stand to benefit if it’s reopened, because Russia would have to pay Ukraine fees for the pipeline’s transit through Ukraine.
The pipeline runs through Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region, where there is sustained shelling, but it hasn’t been damaged yet.
I spoke to Timothy A. Wise, economist and senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who said that the pipeline’s closure, like the COVID pandemic, demonstrates the vulnerability of global supply chains for both food and fertilizer. He also spoke to the need to reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-based fertilizer, which has been heavily promoted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a project of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. We focused particularly on Africa, where he did much of the research for his book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food.
ANN GARRISON: Timothy Wise, given that Russia was the top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers before the war, US fertilizer manufacturers are making a killing, just like US natural gas producers, while the prices of both soar because of shortages. Does this illustrate the long supply chain vulnerability of global food systems that you’ve been warning about for years?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes it does, and the companies that dominate fertilizer manufacture, like most industries that dominate agriculture, are highly concentrated. There are only a handful of multinationals engaged in capital intensive fertilizer production, and they’ve so consolidated their economic power that they can set prices. They’ve been doing that since the COVID crisis. Estimates are that they doubled their profits from 2020 to 2021, and they’re likely to double them again in 2022 because of the Ukraine War.
The biggest fertilizer companies are profiteering off people's desperation. Sure, their natural gas costs have gone up and it costs them more to manufacture fertilizer, but they’re adding that and more to their prices to take advantage of the shortages.
Natural gas producers, fertilizer producers, and people all along that supply chain are making a killing. Many farmers in the US are failing to make much money because costs are eating up their margins.
ANN GARRISON: Can you walk us through synthetic fertilizers’ long supply chain, beginning with ammonia production?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Sure. Most ammonia is produced from natural gas, but some is produced from coal. It's produced in a chemical reaction at high pressure and high temperature that combines hydrogen from the hydrocarbons of the natural gas or coal with nitrogen pulled out of the air. And it's a highly volatile compound.
ANN GARRISON: I believe an ammonium nitrate storage facility caused the port explosion in Beirut.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That's right. Ammonia's original applications were for explosives. The first real boom, as it were, in ammonia production was in World War II.
ANN GARRISON: So what happens after ammonia’s manufactured?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Ammonia can be applied directly to fields as a fertilizer, but it can't be moved around, stored, and used without risk, so it's most often turned into synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in another chemical process, and that can take different forms. Most ammonia is turned into urea, but some is converted to other nitrogen fertilizer blends.
Nitrogen fertilizers are more stable compounds. They're safer and easier to ship than ammonia and safer and easier for farmers to spread on their fields, but they are entirely fossil-fuel-derived products. One of the components—the hydrogen—is extracted from fossil fuels, and the process is energy intensive, so it uses a lot of fossil fuel in its production. They're overwhelmingly produced by developed countries that have natural gas, capital, and industrial infrastructure.
ANN GARRISON: Since you've focused much of your research on Africa, can you tell us about the impact of nitrogen fertilizers and supply chain disruption there?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Africa is overwhelmingly an importer of nitrogen fertilizers. Most African countries do not have the natural gas or industrial capacity to produce them, so they’re particularly vulnerable to the supply chain disruptions we're seeing now. Supply chains were disrupted by COVID and now they're disrupted by the Ukraine War.
Russia and Ukraine are large suppliers of both food commodities—wheat in particular—and fertilizer, and both are exported to Africa. So, current impacts of the Ukraine War on Africa include interrupted wheat supplies, interrupted fertilizer supplies, and high prices for both.
ANN GARRISON: Nitrogen fertilizers cause environmental damage, don't they?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes, and they're not as stable as people would like to believe. When nitrogen fertilizer is applied in fields, it breaks down and emits greenhouse gasses. Some of the nitrogen becomes nitrous oxide, which traps far more infrared radiation than either carbon dioxide or methane. One unit of nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more damaging than one unit of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere for more than 100 years.
Industrial agriculture produces a third of total greenhouse gas emissions every year, and nitrogen fertilizer emissions account for about 10% of those if you consider the whole cycle of production and use.
We have the ability to curtail these emissions because there are organic substitutes for nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrous oxide and methane are two of the three big greenhouse gasses, and scaling them back in the short run is far easier than reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which requires a lot more retrofitting and systemic change.
People are looking at methane and nitrous oxide as gasses that could be significantly reduced by 2030, which is what everybody says we need to do.
ANN GARRISON: Doesn't nitrogen fertilizer runoff cause more immediate environmental damage? I know there are dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, where there's no marine life because of the runoff. And the people of the Gulf Coast have high rates of disease caused by all the nitrogen fertilizers coming at them down the Mississippi River.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of the flow of "excess nutrients" down the waterways that feed into the Mississippi River, and it's a huge watershed coming from all the Midwestern farm states.
Phosphorous is another key fertilizer, and the combination of nitrogen and phosphorous creates algae blooms that choke off all the oxygen going to marine life below the surface.
They also make the water unsafe to drink. Des Moines, Iowa has the second largest nitrate removal plant in the world. Because of all the nitrates flowing into the Des Moines River, the city’s main water source, city officials see nitrate levels almost every year that could trigger a shutdown of that public water supply. It’s also a big problem in private wells, which many rural residents rely on.
Nitrate pollution is one of the things that can cause Blue Baby Syndrome, where babies don't get enough oxygen.
For all these reasons, the US regulates nitrates in the water. Authorities rarely test all the private wells in places like Iowa, but when they have, they’ve found a high incidence of nitrates and other pollutants.
ANN GARRISON: You have written that these synthetic fertilizers can also decrease soil fertility.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Indeed, they should really be called “plant nutrients” rather than fertilizers, because they are mainly providing key nutrients to commodity crops, basically turning oil into corn. Monoculture cropping with nitrogen fertilizers can acidify the soil, cause erosion, and decrease soil fertility over time. No matter how much of these plant nutrients you pour onto the land, the organic matter in the soil will often decrease over time. It’s estimated that Iowa, which is among the richest agricultural lands in the world, has lost half its topsoil in the last 50 years by using this industrial farming model—monocropping and saturation with nitrogen fertilizers. Anyone who thinks that we can just keep going the way we're going is dreaming. You can't keep losing 50% of your topsoil and sustain productive agriculture.
For now it just keeps creating more dependence on nitrogen fertilizers and more supply chain vulnerability. There are a lot of efforts in Iowa to try to reform the way they’re growing food, but reformers are swimming against a very strong tide of agribusiness power, so it's difficult to get any kind of serious change.
ANN GARRISON: Nitrogen fertilizer use hasn’t done this kind of damage in Africa yet, has it?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Not on a large scale. African farmers using nitrogen fertilizers are still in a minority, and Africa still has the lowest average rates of nitrogen fertilizer application in the world, very low by global standards. But the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations and other donors have said that Africans need to be using it at a much more intensive rate to be competitive exporters and to grow enough food to eat. Gates and others say they need to triple use by 2050 or, in some scenarios, by as much as 800% to catch up. In his climate change book, Gates called nitrogen fertilizer “magical” despite its negative climate impact. Mr. Science resorts to magic and implies in that book that there's no way to grow enough food without it. But there's a whole lot wrong with that formulation.
ANN GARRISON: The Gates and Rockefeller Foundations started pushing nitrogen fertilizers on Africa in their Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), right?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Right. They brought AGRA to Africa in 2006, and it's been a dismal failure on its own terms. This is a part of the story that I've covered a lot.
AGRA promoted policies and programs to increase fertilizer use, and many African governments adopted input subsidy programs, which are sometimes funded by bilateral donors. The entire purpose of those initiatives is to hook African farmers on commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizers. Many governments provide very generous subsidies, three quarters of the cost, by giving out coupons to farmers to redeem for these inputs.
A significant number of farmers are now using these so-called modern inputs, but they haven't produced the kinds of yields and incomes that would allow them to buy more commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizer after the subsidies run out.
So AGRA has been a failure on its own terms. Even when farmers use those inputs they don’t see large productivity increases. And as soon as the subsidies go away, most farmers just drop the commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizer because they're a waste of money. Their costs exceed their benefits, and those who’ve kept trying to make them work have often gone into debt to buy the inputs, and then they face all kinds of terrible choices.
ANN GARRISON: You've said that this has been particularly damaging in Rwanda, a nation that often serves as a petri dish for Western policies. Could you tell us what's happened there?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Rwanda is considered a poster child for AGRA, and their agriculture minister, Agnes Kalibata, rose to become AGRA's president, a position she still holds. But all the subsidies and strong-arm tactics to force Rwandan farmers to adopt commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizers just managed to increase the production of corn, which is one of their staples but not the only one. And that increase in corn production came at the expense of crop diversity and the environmental health of the land. They encouraged the expansion of corn production on lands where it shouldn't be produced.
Our study suggested that where they claim a 66% increase in yield, it was more like 18% if you consider the increase in a larger number of staple crops, not just corn. And overall, hunger didn't go down. It went up by 40% during the time that AGRA’s been operating. All that corn didn’t help feed the people, so Rwanda is really a hungry poster child for AGRA's failures.
ANN GARRISON: Nearly 12 years ago Rwandan dissident and political prisoner Victoire Ingabire told me that Rwandan farmers were forced into growing so much corn for export that they weren't growing enough food to eat.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: I think that's right. And a diet that is too dependent on corn isn't a healthy diet.
ANN GARRISON: I know a Rwandan exile in Belgium who says that her father had another job in Rwanda, but they had a small farm where they rotated crops throughout the year, and it largely fed them. She said you can't do that anymore because you have to buy the seeds and the fertilizer.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That sounds right, and even when they come subsidized, as I believe they still do in Rwanda, it's still a bad trade off because constant monocropping with nitrogen fertilizer is really bad for the land. It's not making the soil more fertile; it makes the soil acidic and less fertile.
ANN GARRISON: You said that farmers using nitrogen fertilizer are still a minority in Africa. Do you have an idea how common it has become?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Many farms in South Africa are highly industrialized, and they look a lot like parts of the US Midwest where farms are saturated with nitrogen fertilizer, but smaller scale farmers tend to rely on traditional practices. Some are just subsistence farmers producing for their own families, and some also produce a surplus for local and regional markets. Some may use nitrogen fertilizer and commercial seeds on some of their land so long as they're free or cheap. Then when they're no longer free or cheap, they'll stop.
So one of the great myths of the fertilizer crisis, as it's called, in Africa, is that Africa can't grow food without it, that Africa is going to have a famine if we don't get fertilizer to the farmers now.
ANN GARRISON: That's what David Beasley warned of in a recent Associated Press interview. He said that 50% of the food in the world is grown with nitrogen fertilizer and there's a big shortage because China has banned nitrogen fertilizer exports and the Ukraine War has stopped nitrogen fertilizer exports from Russia, which was the top exporter of fertilizer before the war.
He said there's going to be massive famine in 2023. What's your response to that?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Well, there's some truth to those warnings. Many African harvests are over now, so the nitrogen fertilizers Beasley is calling for would be for the next cropping year, in 2023, when he predicts a worsening crisis. Farmers who've become dependent on nitrogen fertilizer and commercial seeds are in a bad place, because they either can't get those things, or they cost too much. Those farmers will see significantly reduced yields, and that will exacerbate food shortages.
ANN GARRISON: Are we talking here about the highly industrialized farms like those in South Africa, smaller scale farms, or both?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Mainly commercial farmers, who have large or mid-sized farms. But some small-scale farmers too. In Zambia, heavy subsidies have pushed up synthetic fertilizer use even among those farmers.
ANN GARRISON: Beasley also said, “The other factor is inflation and the value of the dollar. Because the value of the dollar is so strong now that it’s offset any movement we’ve had in the poor countries with regard to food pricing.”
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That’s true. The global shortage of food and fertilizers drives up the prices, and African currencies are sliding as the dollar surges. This further illustrates the vulnerability of global supply chains and the need to transition to local and regional supply chains.
The World Food Program is doing some heroic work trying to rally food donations and it’s working much better than it used to. They don't just take surplus US grain and dump it on developing countries. Instead they buy more of it locally and regionally in markets where production is still good, and they mostly do it with cash. So that actually helps developing economies instead of hurting them, and gets food to people who are on the edge of starvation.
But I would love to see the World Food Program and other donors make a commitment to helping farmers transition away from dependence on external inputs. The COVID crisis and the Ukraine War should both tell us that we need short supply chains, not long ones. We need local resources and local markets. But the multinational firms that dominate the agribusiness sector don’t want to hear that, and they're driving the bus right now.
Unfortunately, the African Development Bank’s response to the fertilizer shortage is to open up a $1.5 billion nitrogen fertilizer program to extend credit so that farmers and governments can buy more fertilizer, even at these high prices, just to keep the train rolling.
ANN GARRISON: How is agribusiness driving these changes?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: When governments subsidize commercial seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, the companies are the clear beneficiaries. The subsidies create markets for their products, and they lobby for other policies to push farmers to buy their products. Seed laws can threaten farmers’ right to save, exchange and sell good seeds to other farmers. The companies see Africa as the last great market to conquer, and that market is expected to grow.
African organizations for food sovereignty and sustainable farming are saying no to such policies. The fertilizer shortages and price spikes should be a wake up call that we need to decrease, not increase, their dependency. Sure we have a short term crisis. OK, get some nitrogen fertilizer to farmers that need it, but let’s start decreasing our dependency on these inputs that are manufactured and marketed on a global scale. If climate change and fertilizer shortages are telling us anything, it's that we need to reduce our dependence on external, fossil-fuel-based inputs and increase our reliance on organic local resources to produce our food.
They can do it. African farmers have shown that there are a lot of ways to fertilize the soil that are better than nitrogen fertilizer. I wrote a lot about that in my book.
ANN GARRISON: Subsidized, globally manufactured inputs seem to exacerbate the debt and donor dependency that are among the biggest problems in Africa, in addition to creating the supply chain vulnerability.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That's right. And the response of the African Development Bank—to give people more nitrogen fertilizer—just creates more dependence. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa has called on African farmers and governments to put down the shovel, stop digging Africa deeper into a dependency hole, and chart a new path. That path is agroecology, reliance on local resources, lower input agriculture, and multicropping, not monocropping.
The head of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa wrote that Africa is not a monoculture and it should not become one. It has diverse cultures with diverse local food systems in diverse local landscapes.
ANN GARRISON: Do you see a lot of land grabbing putting further pressure on local food systems?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes. That's particularly aggravated when there's a big jump in food prices, and when returns from stock markets and other investments collapse. Capital then flows into commodities and land. I haven't seen data on land grabbing since the Ukraine War broke out, but it won't surprise me if we see an increase, as we did after the 2007-2008 food price spikes.
Global industrial responses to climate change, including so called carbon sequestration, and carbon offset programs also put pressure on land. They make it profitable for companies to “invest” in, for example, preserving forests in the Congo, in exchange for carbon credits, so they can keep polluting in their core business.
I almost fell off my chair when Jeff Bezos said Amazon has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030 by sequestering as much carbon as it’s emitting. When people asked how he was going to do that, he said that a lot of it's going to happen in the Congo. In other words, not by them decreasing the fossil fuels they use in all of their vast supply chains. They may start using electric vehicles and things like that, but their main strategy is to claim a big chunk of the Congolese rainforest, say nobody can touch it, and get carbon credits for doing that.
ANN GARRISON: Congolese who live in the forest have various ways of producing food there and using it to survive without cutting the trees down.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes, there’s a long cynical history of corporate multinational “green” organizations walling off forests and other lands from the people who have relied on them for generations and maintained their viability. They’re protecting the forest and the land, but then they’re kicked out to allow Amazon and the like to keep polluting in other parts of the world.
ANN GARRISON: Well, we couldn't expect Gates and Bezos to imagine anything but global corporate solutions.
Can you give us a picture of the alternatives? I think you’ve said that Mali has been particularly successful in developing local, sustainable agriculture.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: Yes, Mali and other parts of West Africa are particularly interesting because several governments there have made commitments to developing agroecology, farming with nature, and reducing dependence on inputs like commercial seeds and nitrogen fertilizer.
Mali has done some very interesting things in response to the fertilizer crisis. One of the leaders of one of the farm organizations there said that it’s actually helping, not hurting their food production.
The majority of the nitrogen fertilizer used in Mali is for cotton. But the fertilizer shortage has meant that cotton farmers can't afford it, so they're taking their land out of cotton and planting sorghum or millet, which doesn’t need fertilizer, and is relatively drought tolerant, resilient, and nutritious. So Mali gets a net increase in food production from the fertilizer crisis.
In addition, the government of Mali has made a commitment to creating alternatives to nitrogen fertilizers. They are encouraging the use of organic, biofertilizers that can be produced using local resources, not natural gas. They've started to scale up production facilities for biofertilizers and provided subsidies to farmers to use them instead of nitrogen fertilizers. That's the kind of transition we need.
ANN GARRISON: And this encourages more small scale farming for local and regional markets?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: It does. And one of Mali’s advantages is that they weren’t drawn into the global industrial farming model to the extent that other African nations were. They're not as dependent on imports of food or synthetic inputs. And they tend to have a diverse crop mix, unlike Rwanda. Rwanda went all in on corn, leaving the people without enough food to eat. In Mali, corn is just one of the staples they grow. Traditional crops like millet and sorghum are more important in Mali, even though the Green Revolution for Africa has tried to change that.
ANN GARRISON: African nations, like any others, need export products to generate foreign exchange. Can agroecology be applied on a scale that allows farming for export?
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That remains to be seen. Export dependence for commodities such as cotton is a legacy of colonialism, and it is very difficult for developing countries to find export markets that allow them to earn that foreign exchange. But remember: They are now spending a huge amount of foreign exchange to import fertilizers. Cutting that dependence has direct economic benefits, particularly if there are low-cost ways to fertilize the soil and get better results than the Green Revolution for Africa has produced.
ANN GARRISON: So in response to the current food and fertilizer shortages, you would recommend food aid where it’s desperately needed, with food purchased from African farmers where possible, combined with steps to transition to local and regional agroecology.
TIMOTHY A. WISE: That's right. And there's certainly a place for getting fertilizer this year to farmers who are dependent on it, but Mali’s showing a different path to African food sovereignty and sustainability by developing biofertilizers, crop diversity, local and regional markets, and short supply chains that aren’t as vulnerable to global shocks.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com.