5 min read

Convergent Causes of Scarcity

Convergent Causes of Scarcity

There will be a broader-scoped climate change letter coming soon, (kinda late) on the tail of the latest IPCC report. For now, I want to focus on a confluence of events that is only lately getting mainstream airtime. First, the latest report from the IPCC (expect a depressing newsletter focused on that in the coming weeks) has stressed that we will feel the hurt from climate change harder and sooner than expected. In addition, Russia has halted urea exports, putting a clamp on a critical fertilizer component. And finally, we've talked previously about how both Ukraine and Russia are huge exporters of wheat, a fact which is being noted with increasingly nervous tones in the news. These issues combine to create the potential for a really heavy impact at the grocery store and your wallet.  

Of course, America being a world away, we'll mostly experience this problem through the marketplace–but it is a deadly serious issue for countries and regions of the world which are already experiencing food shortages and hyperinflation. I want to reiterate that regions already in dire need of relief, like Yemen and Somalia, are likely to be in an even more desperate situation soon, with little hope in sight. The Middle East in general relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian wheat, with Egypt in particular receiving 80% of their wheat last year from these sources.

Climate Change, Sooner Rather than Later

Between various reports, including the IPCC, on the more-imminent-than-previously-thought arrival of climate change effects to agriculture and the more forceful and widespread various natural disasters that are coming our way, we are looking at the potential in the not-too-distant future of breadbasket failure. Breadbasket failure is pretty much what you think; an area that is a global food provider suffers a drastic reduction in crop yield. This notion has been on people's radar for a while now, but it's beginning to come into sharper focus as the burdens of climate change mount.

The news has been on pretty loud out of Ukraine, so you may not have heard that in the last couple weeks there has been devastating flooding in Australia and Brazil. You might remember from a few weeks previous that I brought up extreme heatwaves in the global south, too. The world is getting hammered, folks–there's really no other way to see it. These disasters have been unrelenting, and as the seasons shift, it's entirely possible that we'll be on the receiving end of a brutally hot summer and/or a gullywasher that threatens crop production in California and the Midwest.

New climate models indicate that we're going to see broader impacts on agricultural production sooner than expected. While predictions aren't always accurate, it's been a good bet that climate change impacts come for us harder and sooner than models have dictated, so this is all but a sure thing. I've harped on this before–every time you turn around a new report is released that says "shucks, looks like we can expect that doomsday scenario about ten years earlier than we thought." And while there's always a chance for the opposite, and there's always a chance we could make some kind of breakthrough, my hopes aren't pinned on it. That link leads to a study that suggests we could halve our arable land and still produce for the world's needs...if we turned every farm in the world into an industrialized operation. If wishes were tractors we'd all ride Kubota, am I right?

But this actually leads into my next point. The above study suggests that all we need to do is pour a ton of modern fertilizer and equipment into non-industrialized farmland, and we'll be golden to let nature take back half the land, or we can produce even more food. Which would be great, if fertilizer weren't an issue all on its own.

Urea, It's Technically Part of What's for Dinner

Urea is a compound commonly synthesized for its nitrogen content–though, yes, it is created in mammalian waste as well. In the past few years, urea exports have been tightened, and this was made especially true in the days leading up to the war in Ukraine, when Russia imposed a short-term ban on fertilizer exports. Russia, by the way, is the world leader in fertilizer exports, so this is no small thing. With urea and other compounds, like potash, in short supply, the price of fertilizer goes up. When farmers feel the pinch on these products, well, you know how the rest goes.

Urea is frequently produced side-by-side with ammonia, the processes of their production naturally cohabitating and using the same fuel sources. Beyond needing energy inputs for their creation, these processes literally use fossil fuels for production. This means that both our ammonia and urea production are tied up with fossil fuels. The use of which, of course, is fueling literally–and I mean literally, literally literally–every other issue we're talking about today (and most days). Between climate change and the eventual collapse of the fossil fuel market, you have basically this entire newsletter.

I will quit being glib a moment to say that the reason we have 8-ish billion people on the planet right now is because of our ability to synthesize fertilizer. The ammonia, urea, and other chemicals created allow us to enrich land for crops that otherwise simply couldn't support such harvests. Without these processes, without that ammonia, urea, etc., billions would go hungry, and eventually starve. While that's not what's at stake with Russia withholding exports, this is what we're dealing with. And yeah, eventually? We're going to have to come face to face with the reality that our food is not going to grow like it used to. (Don't worry, I will write that really depressing newsletter soon.) What we should expect right now is more of the same; which is to say, inflation.

Inflation is an Indicator of a Healthy Economy, Local Billionaire Says

Food prices have gone up a staggering amount over the previous year. Rising mostly on the increasing costs of energy and fertilizer (see above), there is little hope in sight for this inflation to cool. The article above suggests conditions are right for better than average harvests this year, but it adds that the war in Ukraine was not accounted for–and the best laid plans tend to go downstream after a rain, these days. With harvests from Ukraine likely disrupted, and exports from Russia shut down for much of the globe (except, notably, China), we can expect things to get worse before they get better. The Washington Post's morning briefing last week was all about the coming food crisis, and Al Jazeera reported on an Iraqi protest over food prices. Hunger is the prime indicator of coming civil strife, and that's true around the world. A conflict like the war in Ukraine jeopardizes stability across the globe, not just through hunger, but the desperate measures that come from that lack.

Which leads me to remind you all that independence from the market and supply chains is a good thing, even if it's only partial. If prices at the store rise, the easiest way to stay fed is not need the store. So, here's a reminder that if you've got a little bit of yard, now's the time to plan out your garden and buy seeds. If you don't have a yard, find a community garden, or do a little guerrilla gardening and start foraging. They aren't complete solutions, but they're something, and they will help you acquire skills we're all going to need before long.

I can't stress enough that a key idea of preparedness is that you do it before the emergency. You may think that you'll start getting serious about feeding yourself after things get worse but, let me tell you, worse is coming tomorrow. Prices are going up now and conditions around the world are not leaning toward stability, whether political or climatic. Start doing this work today, because tomorrow's going to be harder.