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Lobbying blitz pushed fertilizer prices higher, fueling food inflation

04.08.2022 | In the media

One of the largest U.S. fertilizer producers lobbied the Trump administration to restrict foreign competition by imposing tariffs that are now contributing to inflation and the global food crisis, previously unreported emails and meeting notes show.

Just months into Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017, the Mosaic Co. retained Ballard Partners, whose founder was a key fundraiser for the Trump campaign, to push tariffs on fertilizer imports. With Ballard’s help, Mosaic executives secured high-level meetings with White House trade officials to discuss what they claimed were unfair subsidies for foreign importers, according to emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by American Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog.

The yearslong lobbying campaign resulted in the Trump administration recommending tariffs in 2020 that went into effect last year on phosphate fertilizer from Russia and Morocco, the first- and fourth-largest fertilizer exporters in the world, respectively. As foreign imports plummeted, Mosaic gained control of 90 percent of the U.S. phosphate fertilizer market.

Disclosures show that Mosaic has paid Ballard $1.49 million in lobbying fees. The firm remains on the company payroll.

Over the last year, costs of key fertilizer products have risen to record levels, fueling a food crisis throughout the world including skyrocketing prices for meat and vegetables in the United States. While the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues have been major factors in the unfolding crisis, the tariffs as well as war-related sanctions on Belarus and Russia have destabilized agricultural markets, and opposition to the tariffs has grown.

Mosaic did not respond to a request for comment.


An employee watches as the bucket of a drag line unearths phosphate at the Mosaic Co. South Fort Meade phosphate mine in Fort Meade, Fla., in 2015.
Photo: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

MOSAIC’S SQUEEZE ON the supply of fertilizer began with a series of meetings with top Trump officials.

Shortly after signing with Ballard Partners, Mosaic executives traveled to Washington, D.C., to make the case that phosphate fertilizers produced in Morocco, which controls close to 75 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves, posed a competitive threat to their business. At the time, fertilizer prices were low, and U.S. suppliers expressed concerns that foreign state-owned firms were unfairly subsidized.

On June 5, 2017, Syl Lukis, a Ballard lobbyist, wrote that he represented Mosaic in an email to a U.S. Trade Representative adviser. Lukis sought a meeting with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer.

Lukis noted in an email that the Mosaic CEO and the senior vice president for phosphate production had already scheduled a meeting with Peter Navarro, the director of the National Trade Council.

“There are some International Trade issues they would like to discuss regarding Moroccan phosphate production,” Lukis wrote.

Later that month, Mosaic executives were scheduled to meet with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Emails show that the meeting was scheduled through Lorine Card, an in-house lobbyist for Mosaic, and Linda Dempsey, the vice president of international economic affairs policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, a business trade group for which James O’Rourke, the Mosaic CEO, is a board member. The correspondence shows that the lobbyists coordinated the meeting with a group of Commerce Department officials, including Eric Branstad, the son of then-Ambassador to China Terry Branstad.

Meeting records show a scheduled event for O’Rourke, acting Commerce Undersecretary for International Trade Israel Hernandez, and Mark Kaplan, an executive in Mosaic’s phosphate division. Scheduling records show that the meeting took place on the same day that Ross had planned to meet with the Mosaic executives, though it is unclear if the meetings were planned to be combined or separate.

The discussions revolved around “key trade issues, including trade with the EU as well as competition here in the United States from China, Russia and Morocco,” wrote Dempsey.

In July 2020, following years of lobbying Trump officials, Mosaic formally filed a petition with the U.S. International Trade Commission for a countervailing duty investigation to determine whether Morocco and Russian exporters received unfair subsidies.

In November 2020, the Commerce Department announced that it supported Mosaic’s assertions and would officially press forward with the company’s tariff petition. The following March, the ITC imposed duties of 20 percent on Moroccan fertilizer giant OCP Group, 9 percent on Russian firm PhosAgro, and 47 percent on Russian-owned EuroChem.


View of the industrial unit of phosphoric acid and phosphate fertilizer production in Jorf Lasfar, near El Jadida, Morocco, in 2011.
Photo: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

CRITICS IMMEDIATELY QUESTIONED the logic of the tariffs. A group of domestic agricultural groups filed a trade lawsuit, arguing that the tariffs granted Mosaic a “near monopoly” on phosphate fertilizer. The brief claimed that the U.S. government erred when attributing a supply imbalance in the phosphate fertilizer market in 2019 to Moroccan and Russian subsidies. The agricultural groups claimed that Mosaic and another U.S.-based firm, Nutrien, had idled plants while increasing exports.

The Open Markets Institute, a think tank that studies competition policy, bolstered the lawsuit’s claims in a letter last month, stating that Mosaic in 2014 acquired the phosphate fertilizer business of competitor CF Industries for $1.2 billion. Mosaic then moved to cancel plans for a $1.1 billion plant in Louisiana that would “increase ammonia production needed to make finished phosphate fertilizer” as well as for a $1 billion Florida plant for processing phosphate fertilizer. Mosaic, the group claimed, used savings for stock buybacks. Following the imposition of tariffs on foreign competition, Mosaic’s stock roughly doubled over the following year, from $31.15 to $61.92. The stock now hovers around $50 a share.

In other words, Mosaic allegedly consolidated market share, reduced fertilizer supply, and then used its profits to lavish investors while also lobbying to restrict competition.

Farmers in the U.S. face fertilizer prices that are four to five times higher than last year, according to a study by Texas A&M University, driving up the costs of a wide range of crops. Phosphate fertilizer at the beginning of planting season this year was double the price over the previous year. Higher costs for growing feedstock have also fueled higher prices for meat, particularly beef.

Soaring agricultural prices have prompted increasing opposition to the tariffs. In March, a bipartisan group of congressional legislators wrote to ITC Chair Jason Kearns, asking the trade body to reconsider the duties placed on phosphate fertilizer products imported from Morocco.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kan., have also introduced a bill in Congress to allow emergency waivers on fertilizer tariffs.

The Moroccan government has mobilized a counter-lobbying campaign as well. The influential law firm Covington & Burling has received at least $15 million in fees from the state-owned OCP in connection to its work battling the tariffs and other key issues for Morocco.

Mosaic has petitioned the U.S. government to argue against lifting tariffs. In a letter to Agriculture Department officials last month, Ben Pratt, the senior vice president of government and public affairs at Mosaic, cast rising fertilizer prices on “many events, including geopolitical ones” as well as “supply disruptions, inflation, and other countries that have restricted fertilizer exports to preserve domestic supply.”

Pending a ruling on the trade lawsuit or government action, the fertilizer tariffs will be in full effect through 2026.


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