U.S. farmers are already suffering from high fertilizer costs, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday warned suppliers not to try to take advantage of the chaos from the Russian invasion of Ukraine by raising prices.
Supply disruptions or price spikes for fertilizers or its components overseas – even from places the U.S. doesn’t trade with – can result in American farmers paying higher prices. And Russia is a major producer and exporter of urea ammonium nitrate solutions (UAN), a nitrogen fertilizer on which U.S. corn farmers are especially dependent.
Vilsack said it’s too early to know if the war in Ukraine will disrupt international fertilizer trade, but he also stressed his concern for the possibility of price gouging.
“It will take some time, obviously, for the impact of all this to be understood and felt,” he told reporters during USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, which is being held virtually for the second year in a row. “I sincerely hope that no (fertilizer) company out there … will take an unfair advantage of these circumstances.”
He went on to say that he wants to make sure that fertilizer companies “don’t use this situation as an excuse for doing something which isn’t justified by supply and demand. That’s my biggest and deepest concern and we’re obviously keep an eye on that.”
In addition to Vilsack concerns of price gouging, there could be impacts on both grain and fertilizer trade, according to USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer, who said “Russia’s incursion into Ukraine could have global economic and trade implications.”
He went on to stress that, “Together the two countries account for almost a quarter of global grain exports. In such an event, depending on magnitude, first order effects might see shifts in global grain supplies but interlinkages through fertilizer and energy markets could have knock-on effects for agricultural producers across the world. Broader macro effects could reverberate through the global economy depending on the severity and duration of the conflict.”
The cost of UAN from Russia has already jumped for American farmers thanks to recent decisions by the Commerce Department and International Trade Commission.
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Commerce issued a pair of preliminary rulings in recent months that Russia and Trinidad and Tobago are unfairly subsidizing UAN exports to the U.S. as well as selling the fertilizer into the U.S. at below market prices and that has paved the way for anti-dumping and countervailing duties. Commerce has already begun collecting cash deposits for the duties ahead of final rulings.
The Biden administration is also planning to hit exports of potash fertilizer from two major state-owned potash companies in Belarus with sanctions in April.
But there are many different factors behind rising fertilizer costs, and Vilsack said Thursday he’s pleased that Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has begun investigating.
“These sudden and significant price increases warrant an analysis into the underlying causes,” Miller said in a statement. “We are not looking at any legal theory or from an enforcement point of view at this time. We want to know, to the extent possible, why this happened, what were the basic factors that caused the price increase, and whether the increases can be explained by supply and demand.”
The attorney general’s office, quoting USDA, says that since January 2021 anhydrous ammonia prices have risen by 315%, urea prices have increased 214%, the price of liquid nitrogen has gone up by 290%, monoammonium phosphate (MAP) prices have risen 171%, and potash prices have spiked 213%.