All eyes are on Russia and Ukraine right now, wondering who will attack first. Whether or not this turns into a hot war (and I really, really hope it does not), the Russians have implemented a policy that will hit every American. There is now a Russian fertilizer export ban through April 1 in an attempt to tackle inflation, as well as to increase control over their own domestic crops.
This will affect every part of the American economy, from the food we eat to how we fill up our gas tanks. Understanding why involves fitting many different pieces together, but trying to understand what’s happening now will prepare us for what is likely to happen this growing season.
Where does our fertilizer come from?
The United States is a net importer when it comes to fertilizer. We are known as the “World’s Breadbasket,” because of our productive Corn Belt, but it wouldn’t be nearly so productive without our reliance on fertilizers from other countries. For example, in September 2021, the United States exported $360 million worth of fertilizers, and imported $659 million worth. This means that, for one month, we’ve got a negative trade balance of $299 million worth of fertilizer. We need that $299 million worth of fertilizer for our farms to produce the way we expect them to.
And from whom do we import much of our fertilizer? Russia. Why would the Russians restrict their exports like that?
The last thing I want to do is start blaming the Russians for everything. I’ve gotten to a point where I think a lot of the blaming the Russians is simply politicians trying to distract us from other problems. The Russians have their own set of problems; they are dealing with inflation (like us), and they think controlling their exports will help.
But it does put us in a bind
An investigation that took place during 2020 and 2021 by the Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission found Russia and Trinidad and Tobago guilty of unfair price practices, and imposed duties on them. I am nowhere near fluent enough in trade disputes to have a strong opinion on whether or not this is a good idea. I do know that hitting vendors with additional fees often makes them take their business elsewhere. And plenty of nations besides the U.S. are happy to buy fertilizer.
The U.S. is a net importer when it comes to fertilizer, but we’re not the biggest. As of 2020, both Brazil and India imported more fertilizer than America. Yes, our corn sucks up a lot of fertilizer, but Brazil grows a lot of corn too, and India’s cotton crop requires a great deal of fertilizer, as well. Fertilizer-producing countries like Russia can pick and choose to whom they will sell, and right now, they won’t sell to anyone.
Commodities dealing has always worked like this, with countries picking and choosing with whom they will trade, and vendors shopping around for the combination of best prices and cooperative governments. For a long time, worldwide communication between various commodities dealers kept prices low.
How a Russian fertilizer export ban will impact individual Americans
I’ve been buying feed from the same dealer for years. The price was always stable, until this year. Prices for specific commodities such as oats, millet, or flax seeds have always fluctuated a little bit, but in the past, the dealers could alter their mixes a little bit based on what was most available. For example, if the price on peas went up, they could substitute with another legume whose price was down. Up until recently, the fluctuations were small and varied enough that they didn’t need to raise prices.
That all changed this year. I buy organic feed, so the issue for me was not the fertilizer prices, but the drought in the western U.S. But I have noticed that conventional prices are approaching organic prices, and the reduced fertilizer availability is a big reason why.
Worldwide, we have grown dependent on a type of agriculture that relies on chemical inputs from all over the world. People like Sir Albert Howard started warning the public about “artificial manures,” as he called them, almost 100 years ago. You can certainly spend a lot of time researching the pros and cons of organic versus conventional production, if you’re so inclined. Suffice to say, people have been talking about the perils of cheap food for a long time, and some of the things that we were warned about 100 years ago (soil degradation, requiring ever-increasing amounts of artificial fertilizer) are coming to fruition.
The consequences of ignoring resilience are coming to fruition
For me, with so many friends in the military, I have seen food security as highly relevant toward national security. It has always seemed counterintuitive to be so dependent on other countries, with whom we may or may not have friendly relationships, for our food supply. But Americans have prioritized cheap and plentiful for a long time now, relative to other concerns.
Regardless of our own personal feelings about the situation, it cannot be denied that chemical fertilizers have boosted our output of agricultural products, particularly with corn. Corn production in the United States has tripled since 1960 due to a combination of crop specialization and fertilizer use. American corn is overwhelmingly genetically engineered. The agrichemical companies claim that GMO corn uses less fertilizer than corn would use otherwise, but it still uses much more than many other crops. More than half the synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn. Why? Because it makes such a big difference in yield.
“I don’t eat corn, so this doesn’t matter.”
You may think to yourself that since you don’t eat that much corn on the cob this shouldn’t affect you that much. But, corn is in almost everything. Unless you are growing most of your own food, and meat, and you are buying corn-free feed, you’re eating corn. High-fructose corn syrup is in most soft drinks, juices, and baked items. When something says “vegetable oil,” that often includes corn oil. And vegetable oil is in a lot.
Corn and soy are also the two main components of animal feed, and that includes organic. If you buy meat and eggs from the store, those animals were eating corn and soy. If you think you’re getting away from corn by buying organic meat, think again. All the label “organic” here means is that the animals were fed organic corn and soy. There is no getting away from corn in the U.S. without a great deal of effort.
If you want to get a more thorough understanding of how ubiquitous corn is in the American economy, I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book was published about 15 years ago but nothing really major has changed regarding corn. The first few chapters still give a great overview of how almost everything at the grocery store can be traced back to corn.
(Better stock up on food while your wallet gets the most bang for its buck! Read our free QUICKSTART Guide on building up your pantry supplies for a great how-to.)
A fertilizer ban will impact your gas tank, too.
And corn even goes into our fuel tanks. About one-third of the American corn crop goes into ethanol, which is usually added to gasoline at a rate of 10% (though in some parts of the Midwest you can get 15% ethanol fuel).
Scarcity drives up prices. Anyone who’s ever worked in retail knows this. A scarcity of fertilizer will affect not only food, but also gas prices. The Organic Prepper has been posting a lot of articles about inflation, and this is a big piece of that ugly puzzle.
Is there anything to do other than get depressed about the deteriorating standard of living? Yes. The farmers who this is impacting right now are still planting. Yields will not be as high, and food will be more expensive, but it’s probably not time to panic.
What it is time to do is to think about what you eat.
We can’t blend our own gasoline, and other than maybe trying to drive less (which is a pipe dream for most of us), we don’t have much control over prices at the gas pump. But we do control what kind of food we eat. The overwhelming majority of corn is highly processed. Therefore, if you eat less processed food, you will be eating less corn.
There are plenty of health reasons to eat less processed food. When I was growing up, we ate a lot of processed food because it was cheap. It’s not going to stay the “cheap” option. It’s quite likely that Depression-style stews will return as the cheapest option, because they’re made with the simplest ingredients.
Don’t get me wrong, nitrogen fertilizer goes into almost everything. Unless you’re used to shelling out for local organic everything, you will see a huge jump in prices due to this Russian fertilizer export ban. And local organic is going to increase too, for other reasons, though it won’t be quite as affected by the synthetic nitrogen shortage. But corn is the staple crop that uses the most nitrogen, and so the increased prices in corn and meat are what the general public will feel the most.
How do we as preppers cope with a Russian fertilizer export ban?
So, you can avoid corn by avoiding processed food. What about meat? I would never recommend a vegan diet, but meat is about to get a lot more expensive. If you have acreage, maybe it’s time to think about raising your own livestock. Talk to farmers in your area and start learning. If, like most people, you are in an urban/suburban environment, see if you can go in on some kind of group buy with friends to purchase an animal from a farmer near you.
I buy corn-free feed for my animals. These prices increases are going to hit me, but since I’ve been used to buying expensive feed the sticker shock won’t be as severe for me as it will be for people used to getting ultra-super-mega-cheap food. And I do sell some of the meat I raise.
For example, I am taking three pigs to the processor next week. Two I’m keeping, one I’m selling to a friend-of-a-friend who organizes groups of suburban moms to split the costs of an entire animal. Many people cannot shell out $800 at once for a bunch of pork. However, split several ways, the cost becomes much more manageable.
Become a producer
Producing as much of your own food as you can is a great first step toward self-sufficiency, as is taking back control of your household finances. Even people in apartments can often grow something. If you have a yard with some sun, you may have some pretty good options in terms of gardening. And if you’re able to have your own garden, you can produce some of your own fertilizer for it. We wash an awful lot of potential fertilizer down the drain. It’s time to start thinking really hard about what comes in, and what goes out, of our households.
Building relationships with other producers is a great second step. Our currency is being destroyed. I see no other way to put it at this point. I think bartering is going to come back with a vengeance, and anyone with real, tangible skills, whether it’s growing food, mending clothes, or keeping machinery running, will be at an advantage. The more diverse your set of acquaintances, the more options you will have when (not if, when) prices simply go nuts and you have to make some hard choices.
This Russian fertilizer export ban is something you cannot completely dodge. Are you ready?
The fertilizer shortage will pinch all of us. But the person used to consuming chips, jerky, and soda is living off big piles of corn in various stages of processing. He will feel the pain of this a lot more than the person used to throwing together beans, veggies, and meat into a soup pot. The more we pay attention to our consumption habits and our circle of acquaintances now, the better prepared we will be for the price shocks coming this year.
What are your thoughts here, though? How can America prepare for the shock of a Russian fertilizer export ban? What are you doing? Let us know in the comments below.
Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.