Locally recycled fertiliser nutrients reduce risk of future food crises

Disrupted exports of cereals and other foods from Ukraine have been blamed for skyrocketing food prices, but a recent study indicates that fuel price and fertiliser scarcity are more important factors, and that stability is key to avoiding future crises. We met with Dr Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh to find out more.

30 Aug 2023

When store prices increase, observed data shows that people are prone to changing their diet to include less meat, fruit, and vegetables. Consequently, millions of people might become undernourished, leading to premature deaths if diets are sustained. We see the largest impact when price inflation is sudden and unexpected.

– High food prices aren’t all bad in general. A lower consumption of red meat, for example, can be beneficial for the environment. A more balanced diet might also reduce obesity. However, sudden shocks tend to lead to negative effects, both socially and ecologically. Higher input costs can even lead to less effective land use, leading in turn to agricultural land expansion and biodiversity loss, said Dr Peter Alexander, specialist in agriculture and food systems and lead researcher on the team behind the article.

When the war in Ukraine broke out, food prices started to rise rapidly in grocery stores all over the world. The UN and the World Food Programme (WFP) pointed to halted exports of grain and food from Russia and Ukraine as an obvious explanation. But Dr Alexander and his colleagues suspected that disrupted trade in food itself wasn’t the whole picture.

– We wanted to look at the effects of different shocks to the food system and compare the impact of restricted exports with increased prices on agricultural inputs like fuel and fertiliser. Our model ran between 2021 and 2040 and investigated four different scenarios. The results show that impact of fuel and fertiliser prices on food prices is larger than that of export restrictions, said Dr Alexander.

Stability important

Stability appears to be the key component of a sustainable food system. Geopolitical friction in combination with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns means risk avoidance is virtually impossible. But with a wider variety of solutions at hand, for example, renewable energy sources and locally recycled nutrients for fertiliser production, food production stands a better chance of enduring future crises.

– It is crucial that we understand the mechanisms at play here, and their individual effects. A narrow focus on diplomacy to end export restrictions would, in this case, have diverted attention away from the principal causes of rising food prices: access to fuel and fertiliser. The reduction of fossil fuels in the food industry is already on the agenda, but it is equally important that we find sustainable solutions for fertiliser. Increased circularity is where we should be heading, said Dr Alexander.

Dr Peter Alexander, University of Edinburgh Dr Peter Alexander, University of Edinburgh

Circular solutions already exist

Ragn-Sells has three separate methods for recovering and recycling the three macronutrients crucial to agricultural fertiliser: Ash2Phos for phosphorus, Aqua2N for nitrogen, and Ash2Salt for potassium. All three are developed and patented by Ragn-Sells’ innovation company EasyMining.

– Findings like these give us further incentives to scale up our solutions for circular nutrients. If we want to build a sustainable food system, we need to use the raw materials we already have, again and again. Even in times of surplus, we need to prepare for future shocks like the war in Ukraine. The sooner we can reduce our dependency on imports from unstable and undemocratic states, the better, said Anna Lundbom, head of marketing at EasyMining.

Anna Lundbom, head of marketing at EasyMiningAnna Lundbom, head of marketing at EasyMining