During the 2007-8 food crisis, the bruising cost of food was compounded by another problem — fertilizer costs soared even more than the food itself. The problem hasn’t gone away. Fertilizer prices are higher this year than last, and there’s a great deal of uncertainty about where they’ll go in the future.
There is, however, a great deal of certainty over the human cost of industrial pesticides and fertilizers. In the next decade, the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that pesticide-related health care will cost Africa $90 billion. Agricultural chemical poisoning kills one million people a year, with millions more made severely ill by it.
This is to say nothing of the long-term environmental harm and other costs associated with pesticide use. Worse, agriculture is both perpetrator and victim of climate change. The fossil fuels used to make fertilizer contribute to agriculture’s carbon footprint, yet the rural poor will be hit hardest by climate change.
We’re encouraged to shrug off the environmental and social costs as necessary evils, unavoidable if we are to feed the world. We should shrug less. First, despite the acknowledged costs, one billion people are still malnourished. We all pay the price, but one in seven never see the benefits.