How a shortage of fertilizer and animal feed endangers Jamaica’s traditional beef patty
In this edition, a fertilizer and animal feed shortage is threatening traditional staples around the world
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Vladimir Putin, speaking last Monday at a conference for Russian and African parliamentarians in Moscow, offered to provide “free food” to African countries most threatened by food insecurity. It was a reminder of how effectively Putin continues to present himself as a bulwark for developing countries against the economic might of the West. Prices of food and fertilizer may have stabilized, after enormous spikes, but food supply is still threatened. A recent World Economic Forum report ranked “a looming food supply crisis as one of the top four threats facing the world.”
In Liberia, a meal is not considered complete without rice. Ghanaians lament days as wasted if not accompanied by fufu, a ball of starchy vegetable mash. As in France, bread makes the meal in Egypt. But these traditional staples are becoming harder to find and more expensive. From Malawi to Jamaica, the effects are being felt.
“Our production has been cut by at least 50% since last year because it really affects the animals,” said Rayon Hunter, the owner of a small livestock farm outside Kingston, Jamaica. Some of this is because many Jamaican farmers are reliant on importing not just fertilizer from Russia and Ukraine but also animal feed. “Some of them lose weight,” Hunter said. “Some of them get diarrhea because when there is no feed, their stomachs shrink, and when we get feed, they overeat, which stretches their stomach again and disturbs their intestines and digestion.”
Food insecurity, even in the event of a near-future resolution to Russian aggression, will be a lasting consequence of the war in Ukraine. Overpriced eggs and yogurt in Sri Lanka mean parents skip meals to feed malnourished children. A worsening grain shortage in East Africa has meant millions face starvation. In Pakistan, an altruistic tradition of feeding the hungry has been made near impossible.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with European Union officials last week and made an obvious but necessary point — Ukrainians are facing “tremendous suffering” due to the Russian invasion but a “huge impact” is also being felt around the world, particularly in the global South.
The Turkish-brokered deal to permit safe passage for Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea was extended earlier in March for another 60 days, though Russia continues to wield the Black Sea Grain Initiative as a sword with which to slice through Western sanctions. These additional two months, Russian officials said, would give the West time to “exempt from their sanctions the entire chain of operations which accompany the Russian agricultural sector.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Jamaican farmers have struggled to cope with a confluence of fertilizer, feed and, subsequently, beef shortages. In order to make the traditional beef patty — much sought after in Jamaica, in the Jamaican diaspora and in the wider Caribbean — you need beef. But local husbandry can’t supply enough meat because feed and fertilizer prices have risen so precipitously since the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia and Belarus are among the largest sources of mineral fertilizers in the world. While both countries were allowed specific exemptions from Western sanctions, including the supply of fertilizers, all exports were impacted. Prices have risen because of the exclusion of Russian banks from the global SWIFT payments system and the reluctance of insurers to cover shipments in a war zone.
The shortage of fertilizers has been compounded by the export restrictions imposed by China, which accounts for 30% of global phosphate fertilizer supplies. According to the World Bank, China’s exports shrunk by 50% last year after the country took measures to protect its domestic market. Two weeks ago, at an event to mark the start of the 12th year of the conflict in Syria, Corrine Fleischer, a regional director at the World Food Program, made a sobering observation. “We are at the line of making a choice of who gets food and who doesn’t get food,” she said, “because we don’t have the funding that we need to feed everyone.” Data from the agency showed a 199% rise in fertilizer prices, straining food availability and affordability in the world’s poorest countries.
Kemron Gordon, who owns an animal husbandry business in the remote hills of St. Andrew, in Jamaica, says he now also sells wheat because “farmers try to use alternatives.” For instance, he explains, “you have a pig farmer who would normally use three bags of feed, now he buys one bag of feed and three of wheat. It will not contain as many nutrients, but it helps with the volume.”
The Jamaican patty has a long, intricate history. Introduced by indentured laborers and born of colonialism and migration, the patty stands today for reliable, inexpensive food. It’s a reflection of the reach of the war in Ukraine that the availability of the Jamaican patty is so profoundly impacted. It’s symbolic of how dependent the world has become on select producers. Though it is Russian aggression that is primarily responsible for the fact that as many as 100 million people around the world will likely be undernourished this year, Russia is winning the battle for hearts and minds in increasingly hungry countries.
As in other nations suffering food shortages and supply chain issues stemming from the war in Ukraine, Jamaica is now desperately seeking alternatives. Fertilizer has become prohibitively expensive in Jamaica. Animal feed has become collateral damage. The National Environment and Planning Agency in Jamaica has talked up pelagic sargassum, a type of seaweed, as a biofertilizer. The odor emitted by sargassum as it dries on Caribbean beaches has reportedly had an adverse effect on tourism but it might mitigate the price rise in imported fertilizer. Such efforts, though, are still in their preliminary stages.
The Kyiv School of Economics asserts that Russia has caused $4.3 billion in damages to Ukraine’s agricultural sector. But it is Russian largesse that is catching the eye in Africa. After a recent donation of fertilizer to Malawi, the country’s agriculture minister described Russia as a “true friend,” a friend who “knows no weather,” a friend who “comes to the rescue when you need them most.”
For countries far from the theater of war, the way that the war is understood is how it hurts them — why the patties are now unaffordable, why it’s become so difficult to put food on the table.
Gladstone Taylor contributed reporting from Jamaica.
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