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Can the World Feed Itself? Historic Fertilizer Crunch Threatens Food Security

A run-up in prices and shortage of man-made nutrients are forcing the agriculture industry to adapt, and the impact could be severe.

Soybeans during a harvest on a farm near Brasilia, Brazil, where farmers are having trouble getting fertilizer for the next soybean crop.

Soybeans during a harvest on a farm near Brasilia, Brazil, where farmers are having trouble getting fertilizer for the next soybean crop.

Photographer: Andressa Anholete/Bloomberg

For the first time ever, farmers the world over — all at the same time — are testing the limits of how little chemical fertilizer they can apply without devastating their yields come harvest time. Early predictions are bleak.

In Brazil, the world’s biggest soybean producer, a 20% cut in potash use could bring a 14% drop in yields, according to industry consultancy MB Agro. In Costa Rica, a coffee cooperative representing 1,200 small producers sees output falling as much as 15% next year if the farmers miss even one-third of normal application. In West Africa, falling fertilizer use will shrink this year’s rice and corn harvest by a third, according to the International Fertilizer Development Center, a food security non-profit group.