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The Fertilizer Shock Might Change Agriculture—for the Better

Can record prices spur efficiencies that would benefit the environment, as happened with the oil shock of the 1970s?

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Illustration: Steph Shueyan Lau for Bloomberg Businessweek

James Cox counts himself lucky. The owner of a 687-acre farm in Gloucestershire, a bucolic county in the southwest of England known for its quaint villages and rolling landscape, bought all his fertilizer for the 2022 planting year well before the recent surge in prices—meaning he had enough to feed his wheat and oats, as well as the barley that’s just sprouting. And he doesn’t intend to use it all.

“We are already considering reducing to some extent how much fertilizer we put on this year’s crop so we have some left over for next year,” Cox says, citing soaring prices for synthetic nutrients. He’s trying to calculate exactly how far he can stretch his reserve without compromising the quality and quantity of his harvest. “How much dare we trim the fertilizer back from what we were originally planning to use and how much will that impact the crop margins for this year?”