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BTL 2022

Prairies ramp up potash production amid Russia sanctions blowback

Together, Belarus and Russia provide the world with 40 percent of its potash supply

Economic CrisisEuropeFood and AgricultureWar Zones

Piles of refined potash are seen in a storage barn at the Nutrien Ltd. Cory potash facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy courtesy Nutrien.

With commodity prices soaring as a result of the West’s attempted excision of Russia from global markets, the United States and its allies are scrambling for alternative resource flows. The Biden administration has slightly eased its stranglehold on the Venezuelan economy in order to allow some North American and European oil investment, while also looking to Saudi Arabia for relief from rising energy prices. French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed a desire to move toward “diversifying the sources of [oil] supply” by reintegrating Venezuela and Iran into global energy markets, an act which may decrease European energy reliance on Russia. Meanwhile, North American mining companies are looking to meet global demand for crucial Russian minerals by locating lucrative mining opportunities in Africa.

Fertilizer prices are also extremely high, contributing to the ongoing global food crisis that has worsened in the fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the short-sighted imposition of sanctions by Western countries. In particular, production of potash, one of the most common agricultural fertilizers, has been severely impacted by the war in Ukraine and the West’s stubborn aversion to negotiation and compromise in eastern Europe.

Together, Belarus and Russia provide the world with 40 percent of its potash supply. Belarus is the second largest producer after Canada, while Russia is the third largest. In Belarus, potash sales are the second most profitable export after oil, but since mid-2021 their ability to sell it to European markets has been restricted. In August 2021, the US sanctioned the Belarusian potash industry, and in January 2022 Lithuania closed a key transit route at the Port of Klaipėda, from which Belarus shipped fertilizer to countries such as India, China, and Brazil. These moves meant that, even before the sanctioning of the Russian potash industry, the price of the fertilizer was climbing.

Prior to the sanctioning of Belarus, Europe imported 27 percent of its potash from the country, or 2.4 million tonnes. Following the sanctions, Canada announced that it would be able to serve Europe’s increasingly precarious potash needs. Since then, Canada has increased potash exploration projects throughout the Prairies, and Canadian companies like Nutrien, K+S Potash, and Gensource Potash have ramped up production at existing Saskatchewan mines to meet the exigencies of “constrained supply.”

With the sanctioning of Russia, affordable access to fertilizer has decreased dramatically, and many countries are facing grave food outlooks as a result of the global potash shortage. Under Bolsonaro, for example, Brazil—a country that relied on Russia for 85 percent of its potash needs—is mulling the possibility of pushing into the Amazon to extract the mineral from Indigenous regions, since it may be unable to acquire sufficient fertilizer supplies on the global market. Russia has stated that they will allow the transport of Belarusian potash through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but sanctions relief is not forthcoming, and Ukraine itself rejected the offer due to security concerns.

In the 2022 federal budget, the Canadian government allocated $4 billion to its first-ever Critical Minerals Strategy (CSM), described in its discussion paper as “a generational opportunity for our country.” In addition to increasingly in-demand battery minerals of the sort that are drawing Canadian investment to Africa, the CSM notes dozens of important minerals whose price and accessibility have been affected by “geopolitical uncertainty,” and which Canada needs to secure for its own economic security. One of them is potash.

Recently, the Saskatchewan Party government released a “Growth Plan” that centres around amplifying the province’s mining capacity, especially its potash production. In 2021, Saskatchewan potash production was valued at $7.6 billion, around 30 percent of the world supply. The Growth Plan indicates that the Saskatchewan government wants to increase potash exports to $9 billion by 2030.

The mineral strategies of both the Alberta and Manitoba governments also include potash development, even though these provinces are not traditionally fertilizer producers. In June 2022, Manitoba announced the creation of its first-ever potash mine. It is located near the province’s Saskatchewan border. Additionally, Manitoba’s 2022-2023 mining program identified potash as a focus of the province’s expanding mineral extraction projects.

Alberta’s recently released “strategy to re-energize Alberta’s minerals sector” also notes the importance of potash. The document shows that there are currently three potash exploration sites in the province, all of them along the eastern border with Saskatchewan.

Despite this Prairie-wide expansion of fertilizer exploration and production, it is impossible that Canadian potash will be able to fill the gap left by Russian and Belarusian sales. Nutrien’s Chief Economist Jason Newton admitted as much in a recent Financial Post interview in which he stated, “We know that other Canadian producers are looking at options to boost production as well, but that still falls a long way short of the reduction in Russia and Ukraine.” Article author Gabriel Friedman notes that the increased production plans will “take Nutrien to the limits of what it can produce from its six mines in Canada,” and that any substantial growth will take years of strenuous effort. Additionally, Gensource Potash CEO Mike Ferguson stated that he “does not believe there is sufficient capacity to make up for all sanctions imposed on the fertilizer, which may lead to a tight potash supply and sustained higher prices.”

Despite the more optimistic pictures, it is highly unlikely that Canadian potash producers will be able to replace Russian and Belarusian supplies on the global market. This fact points to a deeper problem at the heart of Canadian foreign policy and the foreign policy of the US and its allies more broadly: the shunning of diplomacy in the Ukraine war, coupled with the ill-considered application of far-reaching sanctions packages, has produced an untenable global agricultural situation which the West will not be able to rectify outside of diplomacy and sanctions rollback. For these reasons, the only reasonable position regarding the current layers of global crisis is an anti-war footing that acknowledges the moral and economic dead-end of escalationist policies and the urgent necessity of a compromise in eastern Europe for the good of the world.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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