Innovation Can Bring Food Prices Back Down to Earth

In time, demand for poop and ash may offset the fertilizer crunch.


If you're a compulsive doom-scroller (and who isn't, these days?) you probably have your eyes on rising food prices with the threat of further hikes to come. Supply-chain disruptions, pandemic lockdowns, and economic sanctions had the price of fertilizer soaring even before Russia invaded Ukraine, threatening grain exports as well as the availability of fertilizer for crops. It's an international headache that bodes poorly for budgets in wealthy countries and threatens hunger in poor ones. But price pressures may spur the development of soil-enriching products old and new that could, eventually, help offset expense while diversifying the marketplace in the future.

"From South America's avocado, corn and coffee farms to Southeast Asia's plantations of coconuts and oil palms, high fertilizer prices are weighing on farmers across the developing world, making it much costlier to cultivate and forcing many to cut back on production," The Wall Street Journal warned in January even before the horror show in Ukraine. "That means grocery bills could go up even more in 2022, following a year in which global food prices rose to decade highs."

Since then, troops from Russia, a major exporter of wheat, crossed into Ukraine, another important grower of grain, tightening the availability of food around the world in general, and especially in countries in Africa and the Middle East that traditionally rely on those sources. Prices rose 12.6 percent just in March, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization Food Price Index. Worse, Russia and Belarus are important exporters of fertilizer and of precursor chemicals for making the stuff, driving costs even higher for farmers around the world.

"In addition to being one of the largest producers of wheat, Russia has enormous resources in terms of nutrients," warns Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of fertilizer giant Yara International. "Plants need nitrogen, phosphate, and potash to grow.…In total, 25% of European supply of these three nutrients come from Russia" and Belarus supplies 20 percent of the world's potash.

But farmers grew crops long before the world relied on commercial fertilizers and international suppliers of precursor chemicals. Manure produced from animal feces was long a preferred means of enriching soil but was largely displaced for use in large-scale agriculture by more-consistent modern materials. Now, the literal waste product is being put back to its old use.

"Limited supplies and higher prices for commercial fertilizers have increased demand for manure," AgWeb reported last week. "In the past, some farmers have had trouble giving it away. Now they have crop farmers calling them, some of them having waiting lists."

The result of increased demand for manure has been, as you'd expect, higher prices. "Prices for good-quality solid manure in Nebraska alone have reached $11 to $14 per ton, up from a typical price of $5 to $8 per ton," Reuters notes. That could well bring more suppliers to the market for a product that, just recently, people were often paying to have removed.

But everything has its tradeoffs. Manure production takes time to ramp up, it's difficult to transport, and large quantities of animal waste pose potential contamination dangers to streams and groundwater. As a result, it's heavily regulated. "Livestock farmers say it's a heavy lift to meet all the government rules and track how manure is applied," Reuters adds.

The same considerations, cautions included, can apply to compost—decomposed organic material (especially when it includes the carcasses of, for example, millions of chickens culled because of an outbreak of avian flu). As with manure, demand for compost is rising. New Hampshire's WMUR notes "the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel are forcing many [farmers] to switch to manure and compost." 

Demand for compost may actually save some jurisdictions from their own good intentions. California, for example, now requires people and businesses across the state to separate food and other organic materials from inorganic garbage with the intention that it would be recycled for new uses such as compost. What the law couldn't do was create a market for rotting table scraps.

"The regulations don't require that the newly generated compost be used on farmland, include funding for costly transportation to farms, or mandate that compost be of a quality that would make it appealing to farmers and ranchers," Gosia Wozniacka observed in March for Civil Eats. Under the circumstances, "a jurisdiction could potentially pay for low quality compost and let it sit in an empty lot," she added.

Farmers are now looking for organic material to add to their fields, and suppliers will oblige them at the right price. Rising demand and resulting improved profit potential may accomplish what red tape can't in terms of creating an actual market for usable compost in the place of feel-good mandates.

But likely predating the use of manure and compost for enriching soil was slash-and-burn agriculture. While torching entire fields in order to enrich soil is frowned on these days, ash still improves crops through the use of biochar, a charcoal-like material that replaces slash-and burn. "Biochar is gaining attention as a sustainable product that may help decrease the need for fertilizers while also helping to reduce carbon emissions," Michigan State University researchers commented in 2020.

Intriguingly, one way to produce biochar is with woody material removed from public lands during the process of reducing the danger of wildfire. While forest-thinning usually consumes resources, biochar is a potentially profitable product that might help to make forest maintenance pay for itself in the process of benefiting agriculture.

"Black gold," Kraig Kidwell, regional timber contracting officer for the U.S. Forest Service told the Capital Press in 2020 of a demonstration biochar project in the Mt. Hood National Forest. "We're taking a waste product and creating something usable."

At the time, there was little demand for biochar because fertilizer was cheap. That has obviously since changed, and biochar, like manure, compost, and any other material that can replace or just reduce the need for expensive fertilizer looks a lot more attractive than in the past. In time, signaled by high fertilizer prices, the market will work to find substitutes and alternate sources.

But finding those substitutes won't happen immediately. Ultimately, innovation will bring new products and materials to market to enrich soil and feed the hungry. But, as has happened so often in the past, people will pay the toll for bad policy and military aggression until human ingenuity can step in to alleviate the suffering.