North America, Argentina, Brazil seen well positioned as 2022 fertilizer scarcity may turn to 2023 food shortages

Fertilizer demand will remain strong as farmers across the world race to get nutrients for their corn, sugar, wheat and other crops, with pending decisions in China expected by mid-year on whether to resume exports playing a key role in the uncertainty over supplies, North American fertilizer executives recently said.

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North American farmers have secured all fertilizer needed to increase production, other than some rail disruptions that came as domestic orders surged with farmers seeking to cash on recent sharp increases in food prices.

Third world countries not as organized and who rely on fertilizer imports may need to resort in 2023 to more grain imports from North America, Argentina, Brazil, and to a lesser degree India and Australia, executives from leading North American fertilizer producer CF Industries said.

Fertilizer production capacity coming online may bring relief later in 2022, one executive from Mosaic wrote in a report.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will keep pressure on fertilizer prices for as long as it lasts. Russian fertilizer exports are constrained by sanctions and costlier shipping. Russia and China restricted fertilizer exports since late last year to give priority to their own agriculture needs.

Argentina, Brazil, U.S.

“Third world countries that are planting non-dollar denominated exportable products probably will have yield impacts that will require food imports. That´s still to happen,” said Bert Frost, senior vice president for sales and market development at CF Industries on May 5, during an earnings discussion.

“Global grains stocks remain extremely low, an issue that has become amplified because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We think it will take at least 2-3 years to replenish global grains stocks,” the company said in press release on May 4.

Even countries with organized agriculture industries will face difficulties and pay more for scarce fertilizer supplies.

“The Company believes that fertilizer trade flows to Brazil will be among the most affected by the barriers to export of fertilizer products from Russia, with more than 90% of ammonium nitrate imported into Brazil in recent years having originated from Russia,” CF Industries said.

“Purchasers in Brazil may substitute other nitrogen fertilizers” for ammonium nitrate, it added.

In North America “production returns in 2022 on all crops are forecast to be historically high despite high input costs,” it said.

Urea exports from China are expected to be limited through at least the first half of 2022.

Mosaic sees prices easing

Mosaic, based in Tampa, Florida, mines, produces, and distributes potash, and urea. Andy Jung, Mosaic´s vice president of market and strategic analysis, said in a February report that he sees some fertilizer prices easing.

“For nitrogen, there is a clear path forward to prices trending downward in 2022 as shuttered facilities come back online to add supply to the global market. There is also new capacity slated for commissioning in 2022.  Since nitrogen is a major component of phosphate fertilizers, we should see the lower pricing of nitrogen pass through to phosphate,” Jung said.

Mosaic will bring more supply to cover disruptions at several mines.

Ammonia and sulfur saw on-year price increases of 313% and 194%, respectively in 2021 compared with 2020, he said.

Supply will depend on China, he said. China restricted fertilizer exports late last year. China accounts for between a quarter and a third of global phosphate exports, according to Jung.

CF Industries bullish

CF Industries, based in Deerfield, Illinois, saw a January-March 2022 windfall with a “quarterly record” adjusted EBITDA of $1.65 billion.

The cash enabled dividend hikes, helped redeem debt ahead of maturity, as well as to continue a plan of share re-purchases and even contemplate a net-zero joint venture for a new ammonia plant with carbon capture.

“We expect the global nitrogen supply and demand balance to remain tight for the foreseeable future. Nitrogen demand will continue to be underpinned by the world´s need to replenish global grain stocks,” said Tony Will, CEO of CF Industries, on May 5.

“We believe it will take at least two years and possibly longer to accomplish this,” added Will, CEO of CF Industries.

“We expect nitrogen supply to remain tight with the marginal ton being very high cost. Russia´s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated both demand and supply situations,” he added.

Global food security challenged

Nutrien, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada fertilizer producer, said on May 2 that prices for key crops such as corn, soybean and wheat are 50% to 90% above the ten-year average and that this motivates growers to increase production.

The Food Price Index of the United Nation´s Food and Agriculture Organization, a measure of monthly change in prices of a basket of food commodities, reached an all-time high in March, easing just slightly in April, according to a May 6 press release.

“Food prices remain close to their recent highs, reflecting persistent market tightness and posing a challenge to global food security for the most vulnerable,” said FAO´s economist Maximo Torero.

In 2021 there were some weather events that curbed fertilizer production. Executives anticipated shortages back in Nov. 2021.

By Renzo Pipoli