Morocco opposes Russia’s militarization of the food-energy nexus
After 100 days of war in Ukraine on the eastern flank of Europe, a new critical front has opened up on the southern flank of Europe with the food crisis in Africa. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has accused Moscow of weaponizing starvation and using it against Africa. Already on the verge of a war to counter Moscow’s westward advances in Ukraine, Europe is now pressed to prevent a mass famine-induced migration crisis from North Africa. As Europe faces a two-pronged geo-economic war of attrition with Russia, Morocco’s plan to increase its fertilizer production by almost 70% changes the strategic equation by countering the ability to Moscow to militarize the food-energy nexus. In doing so, Morocco demonstrated its growing importance as a geopolitical partner of Europe and the United States in sub-Saharan Africa.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he also detonated the financial equivalent of a megaton bomb into the global economic system in the form of inflation. Commodity shortages resulting from the disruption of supply chains by war have driven up consumer prices around the world. The most immediate impact has been felt in food production chains, particularly in food-insecure African states on the southern borders of Europe. Already overwhelmed to support a beleaguered Ukraine, the European Union’s immediate concern is that hunger-driven migration from Africa could be more than the EU can handle. Amid fears large numbers of migrants would attempt the perilous boat crossing from North Africa, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas warned that hunger-driven migration from from Africa “was not going to be so manageable”, adding: “We have a global interest in avoiding this.
To be clear, Russia is not responsible for the global food crisis. As a previous EMI publication warned at the time, the food crisis had metastasized throughout 2021. By early June 2021, food inflation had already reached the same level as the immediate rise of the spring uprisings. Arab of 2011 which shook North Africa. Back then, soaring food prices kept people in the streets chanting ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ until long-standing regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fell in succession. fast. In the last six months of 2021, food inflation continued to rise well above Arab Spring levels. In the third quarter of 2021, the price of soft wheat used in the manufacture of bread was $271 per ton, an increase of 22% compared to the previous year. The price in the fourth quarter of 2021 rose again, and as of March 3, 2022, just a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, it stood at almost $389 per ton. Moscow simply pushed on the vulnerabilities of an already fragile global food system and that system began to crumble due to its own weaknesses.
In Africa, the state of food security was already austere: it is the highest proportion of its population, 21%, who suffer from severe hunger of any region in the world. The 2021 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on the State of food security and nutrition in the world warned that there are approximately 282 million undernourished people in Africa, which is equivalent to 85% of the total population of the United States. While Russia may have poured gasoline on the flames of the food crisis, it did not start the fire.
Morocco against the militarization of the food-energy link
Resilient food systems begin below ground with fertilizers, the foundation of the food-energy nexus. Modern fertilizers have created the huge increases in crop yields that have driven the global population boom over the past 100 years, from around 1.8 billion to 7.9 billion people today. As Russia is the largest exporter of fertilizers in the world, fertilizers represent one of the greatest vulnerabilities for Europe and Africa. The EU27 itself depends on the Russian Federation for 30% of its fertilizer supply.
Russia’s advantageous position is amplified by its status as the world’s second largest producer of natural gas, gas being one of the main components of nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen, a macronutrient necessary for plant growth, is supplied by fertilizers in the form of nitrogen-hydrogen compounds, ammonia and urea. Hydrogen comes from natural gas, the price of which accounts for 80% of the variable cost of fertilizer. Even before the war in Ukraine, natural gas prices had risen sharply. In October 2021, natural gas prices in Europe had increased by 400% since January of the same year. The price spike pushed the cost of ammonia to $1,000 per ton in November 2021 from $110 earlier in the year. Thus, the price of the most common fertilizers has reached its highest level in 10 years.
The Russian-Ukrainian war drove prices even higher, turning fertilizers into an existential crisis for global food security. The world’s two largest fertilizer exporters, Russia and China, which together account for 28.4% of global exports, had previously imposed restrictions on the export of fertilizers. Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, global European fertilizer giant Yara has more than halved ammonia production at its Italian and French plants due to soaring natural gas prices , while other European producers have completely shut down.
While the fertilizer supply crisis will result in soaring food prices on European supermarket shelves in the fall of 2022, the supply shortage could be catastrophic for Africa. In 2006, fertilizer use in Africa averaged just 8 kg per hectare, 10% of the global average, prompting the African Union to adopt the goal of increasing use average fertilizer at 50 kg per hectare. Optimistic estimates put recent average fertilizer use in Africa at just 19 kg per hectare. Due to the lack of affordable or even available supplies, African farmers have reduced their use of fertilizer in this year’s planting to little or none. In the future, the resulting local crop failures and rising global food prices could push millions of Africans into starvation and famine-driven migration.
Morocco is the world’s fourth largest fertilizer exporter, after Russia, China and Canada. On May 17, 2022, Moroccan fertilizer giant Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) announced that it would increase its 2022 fertilizer production by 10%, bringing an additional 1.2 million tons to the global market by the end of the year. of the year. This figure reflects OCP’s ability to create a production line with a capacity of 1 million tons in six months. OCP’s chief financial officer said the company plans to increase its production capacity between 2023 and 2026 by an additional 7 million tonnes, or 58% from current production levels. A shrewd business decision by OCP to increase its global market share, increasing the company’s production levels would thwart Russia’s ability to weaponize fertilizer and food shortages. Playing a role roughly analogous to that of Saudi Arabia in the world oil market, Morocco could become the central banker of the world fertilizer market and a guardian of the world’s food supply.
The growing strategic role of Morocco in sub-Saharan Africa
Morocco’s role in countering the militarization of the food crisis underscores the kingdom’s increasingly strategic role in sub-Saharan Africa’s food security. As noted in a MEI study on Morocco’s agricultural reach in Africa, OCP has opened subsidiaries in 12 African countries since 2016, building local blending facilities to calibrate fertilizers specifically for each African country’s soil and allowing small farmers to participate more efficiently and profitably in agricultural value chains. As a result, millet yield in Senegal jumped by 63% and maize in Nigeria by 48%, with similar results in Ghana and elsewhere. OCP’s involvement in Ethiopia has increased wheat, maize and teff yields by up to 37%.
OCP is building fertilizer factories in sub-Saharan Africa in joint ventures with local players. In Nigeria, which sits on the continent’s largest natural gas reserves, OCP and its Nigerian partners are building a $1.4 billion ammonia and fertilizer plant with the aim of tripling the amount of fertilizer used by Nigerian farmers within five years. OCP is investing $1.3 billion to build an industrial fertilizer complex in Ghana, using Ghanaian natural gas and serving West African markets. For East African markets, OCP is building Africa’s second largest fertilizer production complex in Ethiopia, as a joint venture and using local gas resources. OCP expects the $2.4 billion first phase of development to supply the Ethiopian fertilizer market in 2023.
Investing a total of $6.3 billion to build fertilizer factories in sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco has shown remarkable strategic foresight. By helping to counter the Russian threat to militarize the food-energy nexus, Rabat demonstrates its growing importance to Europe and the United States as a geopolitical partner in sub-Saharan Africa. With the geoeconomic aspects of connectivity and relocation further emphasizing the geopolitical importance of Africa, Europe and the United States’ strategic engagement with Morocco is likely to intensify.
Professor Michaël Tanchum is a non-resident researcher in the economics and energy program of the Middle East Institute (MEI). He teaches at the University of Navarre and is Senior Associate Policy Researcher in the Africa Program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is also a senior researcher at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES).
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