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There's a lesser-known casualty of the energy crisis in Europe — fertilizer

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now to Western Europe, where an energy crisis could soon exacerbate the global food-price crisis. The rising price of natural gas is making one gas-intensive product too expensive to make. That's fertilizer. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more about Europe's looming shortage.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Outside of Russia and Ukraine, France is the largest wheat grower and exporter in Europe, according to the U.N.

Bonjour.

CYRIL MILARD: Bonjour.

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

C MILARD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Grain farmer Cyril Milard greets me in the middle of his fertile fields, about an hour east of Paris.

This is a massive truck with a ladder to get in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR SLAMMING)

BEARDSLEY: I climb a ladder to join him in the cabin of his massive combine. On this afternoon, he's harvesting corn. We plow through nine-foot-tall stalks six rows at a time. As the husks are stripped, a steady stream of kernels is spit into the back of the harvester.

C MILARD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Milard says the drought was terrible this summer, but last-minute storms saved his crop. Farmers have always lived at the mercy of the weather, he says. But to worry about fertilizer?

C MILARD: (Through interpreter) No. This is a factor we never, ever considered before. We are losing all our bearings these days. I have about half of what I need. I ordered 90 more tons of fertilizer, but no one can tell me if I will get it in time for my wheat crop next spring.

BEARDSLEY: Milard says without fertilizer, his yields would be halved. He'd harvest six tons of corn instead of 13 and barely cover his production costs. France exports 45% of its grain harvest every year, says the French government, making it one of the top world's exporters. Milard says reduced yields would spell trouble for developing countries that need French wheat, like Algeria and Egypt.

ARNAUD ROUSSEAU: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

ROUSSEAU: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

In Paris, Arnaud Rousseau is vice president of France's largest agricultural association. He says crops take minerals from the soil, so those minerals have to be replaced, especially nitrogen.

ROUSSEAU: It is absolutely obvious that we need nitrogen for our crops, especially for wheat, corn, rapeseed or sunflower. And without any nitrogen, you can't have any result, any yield. And that's the reason why we're a little bit frightened.

BEARDSLEY: Rousseau says the process for making mineral nitrogen fertilizer, the most vital and widely used, is gas-intensive. And with the price of natural gas skyrocketing, most European fertilizer makers have stopped producing. He switches to French.

ROUSSEAU: (Through interpreter) We either have to import gas or fertilizer. We also get most of our fertilizer from Russia and Belarus. And now with the war, that's much harder. We're trying to get it from other places.

BEARDSLEY: Western Europe's largest fertilizer producer recently urged the EU to secure access to gas to bolster its fertilizer industry, saying Europe must reduce dependency on Russia for fertilizers. Experts have warned that millions could go hungry if the world's farmers can't get enough nitrogen for their fields.

Back at his farm, Milard is finally getting a delivery of fertilizer ordered months ago. The 46-year-old farmer uses a forklift to hoist 1,300-pound bags from the truck. He says a load like this used to cost him 5- or 6,000 Euros. Now it's 25,000. Milard's 84-year-old father, Pierre, who also farmed this land, looks on. I ask him if things have changed much.

PIERRE MILARD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Oh, yes, enormously," he says. Milard says there's been huge progress. Take farm machinery. But he's worried France is no longer self-reliant. Take the fertilizer situation.

P MILARD: (Through interpreter) Fertilizer is like food for your kids. You can't raise a family if you have nothing to put on their plates.

(Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "If you can't get enough fertilizer," says Milard, "you might as well close up shop."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Provence, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.