Why is potassium now in short supply and what is the danger for agriculture?

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The world’s soils are low on potassium, a key nutrient plants need to grow. This problem could lead to a global food crisis

What’s the trend?

The growth of plants requires not only nitrogen and phosphorus but also potassium.

This microelement improves productivity and improves product quality. At the same time, potassium deficiency is observed throughout the world. In the long term, this could negatively impact the global food system.

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Why did potassium deficiency occur?

About 20% of agricultural land worldwide suffers from potassium deficiency. This problem is especially acute in Southeast Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. For example, about 75% of soils in the rice fields of China and 66% of soils in the wheat belt of South Australia do not contain adequate amounts of potassium.

In India, its deficiency is already leading to lower yields. It may seem that the problem can be solved by simply adding more substance to the soil, but it is much more complicated.

Potassium is usually mined from potash (potassium carbonate), a crystalline mineral found in layers of underground rock. World reserves are concentrated in a few countries, so most other countries depend on imports. This leaves their food systems vulnerable to supply disruptions and rising prices.

Canada, Belarus, and Pakistan together have about 70% of the world’s potash fertilizer reserves. Together with China, these four countries produce 80% of global volume and dominate the $15 billion international potash market .

Price jumps

Prices for potash fertilizers are subject to fluctuations – there have been two large jumps since 2000. The first happened in 2009 as a consequence of the financial crisis – prices more than tripled . Despite the danger to food systems, governments have not taken action to protect against future shocks.

The second surge occurred in the early 2020s due to the pandemic, geopolitical conflicts and sanctions. By April 2022, potash fertilizers were six times more expensive than in January 2021. By 2024, prices have dropped slightly.

Harm to the environment

Potassium is extremely important for agricultural development. However, the extraction of this trace element has a significant impact on the environment. For 1 ton of extracted substance, there are about 3 tons of waste, which accumulate in the “salt mountains”.

Without proper management, they are washed by rain into rivers and groundwater, where they damage ecosystems. Researchers do not yet know the potential consequences of increasing the concentration of potassium fertilizers in the soil. Hypothetically, they could be toxic to many animal species.

Six measures of protection

A team of British and Spanish scientists in a study proposed six specific measures to protect against fluctuating potash prices and reduce the substance’s environmental impact. In their opinion, humanity should do the following:

  • analyze potassium reserves : a global assessment of the amount of the substance needs to be carried out, a process that would identify countries and regions at risk;
  • better predict price fluctuations : improve monitoring systems, develop an international reporting system for the production of potash fertilizers;
  • help locally : identify sufficient potassium levels for different countries and develop targeted recommendations for local farmers;
  • assess environmental consequences : summarize all data on environmental harm from potassium mining, especially for rivers and lakes;
  • develop a circular economy for potash : learn to renew potash resources in a reusable manner to reduce dependence on mining;
  • establish international cooperation on potassium : develop an intergovernmental mechanism to summarize knowledge about the substance and to agree on prices for potash fertilizers.

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