Fertilizer, Food, and Civil Unrest

You may have heard about impending fertilizer shortages and possible food shortages in the news. Or not, since most US news reporting seems biased in favor of certain politics, and is often overly simplistic or flat wrong even when not obviously biased. For an example of the latter, consider that over the past few days various US legacy news media have reported that farmers are having to thin their herds, so the price of beef is going up. Contrary to what the headlines and soundbites might lead you to believe, the price of beef is more likely to stay level or even go down for the near term because of a glut of beef on the market as farmers thin their herds. Prices will rise later, after that glut passes, but farmers thinning herds will not cause an immediate jump in price. The cost of fuel to get beef to market, cost of energy to process beef and keep it refrigerated, and cost of taxes, permitting, and labor? Well, that’s another part of the picture, and more likely to cause prices to rise . But don’t think farmers are driving a price increase like headlines suggest.

Turning back to impending fertilizer shortages and possible food shortages, let’s pull the thread a little further for these two intertwined areas. The article linked below explores the fertilizer situation, but tends to minimize some key points, such as the effect of tight energy supplies on fertilizer production. Simply put, factories that make ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer, need a lot of natural gas. When Russia decides to cut natural gas supplies for Europe by 80% (the current figure), governments and industries have to make hard choices between home heating for the next winter and manufacturing ammonia for use in fertilizer for the next agricultural growing season. People need heat and they need food, so this puts everyone in a tough spot. Movement by the US and other countries away from fossil fuel production creates a similar bind as different needs compete for limited resources.

Decisions made by policy makers, regulators, investment banking executives, and industry executives have real world impacts, but not necessarily in a time frame that makes it easy for consumers and voters to connect the dots. For example, the German government and policy makers decided a decade or more ago to move away from fossil and nuclear energy, which put them at the mercy of imported natural gas while they made the transition. However, green energy cannot provide the raw materials for fertilizer, so last week Germany’s largest ammonia manufacturing plant announced that it will shut down. Why did Germany choose this path? For hypothetical benefits to the climate, even though China and India, which have a much larger (and growing) climate impact, apparently have different priorities. German voters still support the politicians taking them down this path, but we will see how long they stay the course if they can’t heat or light their homes or put food on the table.

As it turns out, similar economic decisions made by policy makers and regulators in several countries have similar negative effects, even leading to civil unrest, but you will not necessarily hear it in US legacy news media reporting for two reasons: 1) US media coverage of international news is notoriously spotty and shallow, and 2) reporting on policy-driven civil unrest might create doubt about US policy directions. However, ignoring how these decisions impact other countries does not protect the US from making the same mistakes.

So, if news coverage is incomplete, what is happening elsewhere that might sound a warning for the US? Legacy news media may not cover it well, but there are other sources of information. For example, the Carnegie Institute maintains a database of protests (https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/protest-tracker#) that can give us clues about emerging problems. You can sort protests by country, by cause (as reflected in keywords), and by how recently they happened. If you have time and interest, sort and look at protests for the past 30 days and see how many of them reflect economic conditions, food, energy, etc. The assigned keywords seem a bit arbitrary and may inadvertently mask the situation, but you can still pick up trends.

So what can we do about decisions by policy makers and regulators that set us up for problems with our energy and food supplies? We can try to push back through market forces and through the courts, but taking action at the ballot box is vital. We need to elect leaders who will put the good of the country, and in particular the electorate, over political ideology and over the good of the elite ruling class. We need to elect leaders who will take responsibility for explaining, making, and implementing good decisions rather than passing them off to unaccountable administrative offices. We need to pray for our leaders, and for God to give us leaders who will work for justice as defined by God’s laws rather than justice defined by expediency and lawlessness. And we need to trust God rather than regulators, policy makers, and politicians.

Psalm 118:8-9 says, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” This is solid guidance, but it does not absolve us of our responsibilities as US citizens. Since we vote, we are in effect part of our government and own some responsibility for which people become our “princes.” All the more reason to ask questions, seek the Lord’s guidance, and become a well-informed voter.

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