Fertilisers vs food security


The pandemic, an increase in energy prices, a 400% rise in the price of artificial fertilisers, and then the war in Ukraine – in the face of these events, questions about the future of farming in Poland and the EU are most definitely justified. Will this future see agriculture’s continued dependence on importing fertilisers and the gas necessary to produce them? It’s high time that we began to consider public support for moving away from mineral fertilisers. The viability of this move is obvious when we appreciate that food security depends on protecting natural resources and a stable climate.  


Now is the time

The events of the last few months were immediately employed by the representatives of industrial farming to exact a halt on the green reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from the EU. The is a continuation of activities on the part of agri-business, which, ever since the adoption of the Green Deal and the “Farm to Fork” Strategy, has criticised the changes in the EU’s agricultural policy supporting the development of organic and local food production, claiming it to be the greatest threat to the future of EU agriculture and its food security.

According to representatives of agri-business, only the intensification of agricultural production, based on the use of artificial fertilisers, can protect us from hunger and malnutrition. In this narrative, Poland plays first fiddle as the state that took up the initiative to obtain EU financial support to subsidise mineral fertilisers.  

Last week [April 19], the European Commission made the decision to allocate 836 million euro (3.9 billion zloty) to this end to Poland. This will finance the purchase of fertilisers used on approx. 8 million ha of farmland and 2.8 million ha of meadows, pastures and grass grown on arable land. Payments can be granted to agricultural holdings up to 50 ha, though the National Council of Agricultural Chambers (KRIR) claims this to be insufficient. According to KRIR, holdings up to 300 ha, which are regarded as family-run according to Polish legislation, should be allowed to apply for funding. Moreover, at the beginning of January, the minister for agriculture allowed for the cultivation of land previously left fallow, and for the use of agrichemicals on this land. Even if we assume that some part of this land should return to agricultural use, conducting these activities on such a large scale will contribute to a decline in biodiversity, soil fatigue, an increase in water consumption, and environmental pollution.

By drawing up bleak scenarios of higher prices and a lack of access to basic food products, the agricultural media have argued that the targets of the European Green Deal should be softened. The subsidies for fertilisers and the option to cultivate crops on fallow land were both well received by the media as particularly beneficial to Polish farmers.   

What happens next?

The question regarding the future of Polish and EU farming in the face of the war in Ukraine and increasing inflation is most definitely justified. However, this future shouldn’t be necessarily seen in terms of further dependence on expensive mineral fertilisers. In order to halt an increase in food prices, subsidies from public funds for purchasing fertilisers are planned. These funds also come from the taxpayers’ pockets.  

We should consider who benefits from maintaining the farmers’ dependence on artificial fertilisers. Do taxpayers and consumers regard as the best solution the continuing funding of subsidies on fertilisers, which will consequently lead to a decrease in food security in Poland? Will Polish politicians – who largely make these decisions in the context of election results – continue to meet the current needs of agri-business without deeper reflection about what actions are really needed to ensure food security?  

The suggestion to finance subsidies on fertilisers from EU funds is a gateway for a continued decrease in food security levels through the sustained destruction of soil and contamination of inland waters. Fertilisers are carried away into inland waters, which in turn continue on to marine waters, where they create dead, anaerobic zones. It’s farming vs fishing – the two sectors which should remain in symbiosis, as together they form the backbone of global food supply.

The IPES Food Report states that each year Europe loses 900 million tonnes of soil. Europe has also lost 24% of its drinking water supplies. It’s high time to learn the lesson from the increase in the prices of artificial fertilisers and consider the public funding of a departure from these fertilisers. The viability of a step like this is obvious if we understand that food security depends on protecting natural resources and a stable climate.

Even a part of the sum earmarked for financing fertiliser subsidies could be channelled into developing organic farming, where legislation forbids the use of artificial fertilisers. This would be a step towards farmers becoming more independent, insulated from the rising cost of purchasing fertilisers. Very bad news for the fertiliser industry. Very bad news for the fertiliser metering technology industry.

The European Commission stresses that despite the decisions on the cultivation on fallow land and the subsidising of fertilisers, it will not halt work on the CAP reform in line with the “Farm to Fork” Strategy. So how does the Commission plan its policies on a departure from artificial fertilisers? Their production involves the use of fossil fuels, most of all natural gas imported from Russia. Large-scale use of nitrogenous fertilisers is also a source of nitrous oxide emissions (it’s a greenhouse gas). Artificial fertilisers, especially when used over a long period of time, halt all the processes that maintain soil’s fertility and its capacity to retain water. As a result, they exhaust the soil, which starts to require constant irrigation. Water retained in the soil is a prerequisite for the survival of crops over long periods of drought. Agricultural drought has been experienced for almost four years In Poland, but this was not taken into account when millions of euros were earmarked for mineral fertiliser subsidies. Limiting the use of artificial fertilisers will help ensure continued agricultural productivity thanks to the protection of both the soil and water resources. This is especially important in terms of adapting to climate crisis.       

Public funds should be used to finance the teaching of agricultural methods and practices that replace the use of artificial fertilisers. Today, most farmers have no idea how to care for their soil’s fertility by themselves. Not much attention is given to this issue in farming schools and colleges. Also, financial incentives should be created to pay more to farmers who depart from artificial fertilisers, thereby increasing the quality of farming production and contributing to environmental protection. This would pay for the protection of public goods and contribute to the improvement of food security.  

These are the objectives of the “Farm to Fork” Strategy: fewer artificial fertilisers by 2050, pay-outs for introducing alternative farming practices (or entire systems such as organic farming), as well as incentives in the form of payments for carbon farming. Carbon farming aims at maintaining agricultural land in a condition that allows it to store as much carbon dioxide as possible. This is because farming, more than any other economic sector, is able to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions without the use of any special or costly technology. All it takes is for the soil to be cultivated in a particular way, without agrichemicals. The question remains as to whether Polish farmers will be able to claim payments for carbon farming if, through their use of artificial fertilisers, they deprive the soil of its ability to store carbon dioxide.

Moreover, the vision of maintaining food security proposed by an agri-business reluctant to embrace the European Green Deal and the “Farm to Fork” Strategy is based on the premise that the global food chain will continue to operate smoothly; that intercontinental deliveries of agricultural inputs or food products, especially fodder and livestock inside the monopolistic grain-and-meat conglomerate, will remain uninterrupted. This conglomerate already takes up 70% of worldwide agricultural areas with fodder or biofuel cultivation, forcing small-scale farmers in every country to leaving their farms. The further use of fertilisers is not beneficial to communities, but to maintaining the existing global agri-food setup.  

Changes… one day?

As we witness how the pandemic and armed conflict reveal the weakness of global interconnectivity in the agri-food sector to a degree that could provoke humanitarian crisis, why do we not understand that a deepening climate crisis and environmental degradation will become the greatest threats to the stability of the global food chain? All it would take would be more extreme weather conditions that prevent deliveries.

In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Parliament passed a resolution on 24 March 2022 on the need for an urgent EU action plan to ensure food security inside and outside the EU. Is this situation not becoming a convenient excuse for making decisions that allow for the further industrialisation of farming dependent of artificial fertilisers? Why were decisions to intensify agricultural production taken first? Why doesn’t a calculation of reserves that we could use as part of humanitarian aid appear anywhere? Instead of speculating on its prices, how much grain reserve could be released? How big a surplus of food production can we donate to those in need?

Only organic and local food production will ensure food security for us and future generations. Social movements and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have been calling for this for years. We need political decisions that will consider this. Perhaps we will need to wait for such an increase in extreme weather conditions related to climate crisis, for example long-term droughts, for the global, industrialised farming system to become uneconomical. And so we’re waiting for a moment in which agri-business decides that profits aren’t everything. However, the story of humankind tells us that this moment may never come. This is why every activity that supports a change in agricultural policy into one that is friendly to the environment and climate really counts. Every effort, however small, to care for people’s health and quality of life, the wellbeing of animals, and the maintaining of biodiversity, matters.   

Zawarte w tekście poglądy i konkluzje wyrażają opinię autorki i nie muszą odzwierciedlać oficjalnego stanowiska Fundacji im. Heinricha Bölla.