A modelling study led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggests that surging energy and fertiliser prices will have the greatest impact on food security in the coming decades, more so than supply chain disruption caused by the war in Ukraine.

The study, High energy and fertiliser prices are more damaging than food export curtailment from Ukraine and Russia for food prices, health and the environment, which was published in the scientific journal Nature Food, also involved researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, Rutgers University in the US and the University of Aberdeen.

The research team used a global land-use computer model to simulate the effects of export restrictions and spikes in production costs on food prices, health and land use until 2040.

The resulting simulations suggest, the researchers said, that the combined effect of export restrictions, increased energy costs and mid-2022 fertiliser prices could cause food costs to rise by 81% in 2023 compared to 2021 levels.

Halting exports from Russia and Ukraine would contribute 2.6% to this rise, while energy and fertiliser prices would contribute about 74%. The research team therefore concluded that restoring food trade from Ukraine and Russia alone is “insufficient” in avoiding food insecurity.

“We contend that the immediacy of the food export problems associated with the war diverted attention away from the principal causes of current global food insecurity,” the team said, referring to higher energy and fertiliser prices.

Study researcher Peter Alexander, from the University of Edinburgh School of Geosciences, added that this could be “the end of an era of cheap food“.

“While almost everyone will feel the effects of that on their weekly shop, it’s the poorest people in society, who may already struggle to afford enough healthy food, who will be hit hardest,” he added.

The findings suggest that if these high fertiliser prices continue there could be up to one million additional deaths and between 61-107 million people undernourished.

The greatest increases in deaths would be in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.

Fertiliser prices and farmers

The modelling also suggests that the increases in the price of fertiliser would greatly reduce their use by farmers, but that without fertiliser, more agricultural land is needed to produce the world’s food.

The simulations indicate that by 2030, this could increase agricultural land by an area the size of much of Western Europe – Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK

The research team said that this would have severe impacts on deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss.

Commenting further on the overall rise in food prices, Alexander said:

“The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a welcome development and has largely allowed Ukraine food exports to be re-established, but the immediacy of these issues appears to have diverted attention away from the impact of fertiliser prices.

“While fertiliser prices are coming down from the peaks of earlier this year, they remain high and this may still feed through to continued high food price inflation in 2023.

“More needs to be done to break the link between higher food prices and harm to human health and the environment.”