How the Russia-Ukraine war will impact global food security

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6 min read
AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli

The war in Ukraine is a catastrophe for that country and for the world. In any crisis, it is the most vulnerable that will be most affected, and this time it is no different,” writes Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in an open letter.
On Thursday 24 February, the world watched in shock and disbelief as Russia launched an attack on Ukraine. At the time of writing, Russia’s callous invasion of the Ukraine has already claimed 516 Ukrainian civilian lives – 47 of these children – injuring a further 908, according to data from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR).
This data does not include the two adults and one child killed in the Russian strike of a maternity hospital in Mariupol on Thursday (09.03.2022), or the 17 injured in the attack.
11,000 Russian soldiers have already perished in the conflict, according to the Ukrainian Government, although US Intel says the number is between 2,000 and 4,000, and the figures released by Russia are even lower. It is unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the conflict as the Ukrainian Government has not released any data.

Putin’s actions against the Ukraine have not just caused death, brutality and the displacement of a large number of people (it’s believed over two million people have thus far fled the country), they have also highlighted the fragility of our food system, and could soon kickstart a global food security crisis.

Ukraine is a large producer and exporter of agricultural commodities. It’s the world’s number one exporter of sunflower oil, the fifth of wheat (with Russia being the first), fifth of corn and fourth of barley and rye. Prices of these crops have already gone up since the conflict started, and if the war goes on any longer, which it will likely do, Ukrainian farmers won’t be able to start their seed planting season, which takes place at the beginning of spring. The country has now banned the export of many crops including barley, rye, buckwheat and millet as well as meat, salt and sugar for the rest of the year.

Africa and Asia will be regions hit the hardest by the shortages of grains coming from Ukraine. Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Yemen, Philippines, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Ethiopia are the largest importers of Ukrainian wheat. The country is also estimated to be the second biggest supplier of grains to the European Union, exporting to Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Romania, Austria, Greece and Ireland. It is also the world’s leading exporter of sunflower oil with India, China, The Netherlands, Spain and Italy being its biggest importers.

Wheat exports have already been under threat since crops in Canada – the third biggest exporter in the world – were hit by extreme weather in 2021.

Haddad writes that it’s of the utmost importance that the war must end at once, “so that the immediate suffering of the Ukrainian people can begin to be addressed. This will also allow Ukrainian farmers to get back to their fields in the next month or two for planting season and it will allow the rest of us to support them. It will also allow supply chains critical for food to begin to be rebuilt.”

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme writes in a statement on the WFP website: “The Black Sea basin is one of the world’s most important areas for grain and agricultural production, and the food security impact of the conflict will likely be felt beyond Ukraine’s border, especially on the poorest of the poor. Interruption to the flow of grain out of the Black Sea region will increase prices and add further fuel to food inflation at a time when its affordability is a concern across the globe following the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

And it’s not just crop production that is suffering. Russia is a large exporter of gases and minerals used in fertilisers, such as nitrogen, potash and phosphate. Shortages of these materials could have catastrophic consequences for crop yields.

“Ukraine is one of the world’s leading agricultural nations and the world’s second biggest within grains. The farmers are now entering a crucial stage in the agricultural season in which input factors such as fertilizer, seeds and water will determine the yield of the coming harvest. The most extreme calculations indicate that if fertilizer is not added to the soil, the crops can be reduced by 50% by the next harvest,” writes Svein Tore Holsether, President and CEO of chemicals company Yara International.

“In addition to being one of the largest producers of wheat, Russia has enormous resources in terms of nutrients. Plants need nitrogen, phosphate, and potash to grow,” Holsether adds. “Nitrogen is supplied from ammonia, which is produced from nitrogen from air and natural gas. The importance of gas has been on the agenda in the debate around the high European gas prices in 2021 and beginning of 2022. 40% of the European gas supply is currently coming from Russia.

“With regards to potash (a salt extracted from clay deposits), the market is highly concentrated and fragile towards change. Today, 70% of extracted potash and 80% of all exported comes from Canada (40%), Belarus (20%) and Russia (19%). In total, 25% of European supply of these three nutrients come from Russia.”

Lawrence Haddad calls for countries not to stock up on crops and gases: “Exporting countries must resist the temptation to “beggar thy neighbour” by hoarding exports, that simply leads to a race to the bottom for all,” and stresses the importance of diversifying food production sites globally, so that the world doesn’t just depend on a handful of countries to feed its people. “The war has shown the fragility of depending on a few breadbaskets: there need to be many. For example, Africa has immense agricultural potential, but the Malabo agricultural investment and policy targets its governments have set for themselves are not being met.”

Doubling public and private funds for overseas development aimed at ending hunger and increasing financial aid for humanitarian hunger and malnutrition relief are also essential if we want to move away from the food security fragility we currently face, Haddad points out.

Member states of the EU and many other countries around the world have imposed sanctions on Russia and its ally Belarus, and frozen Russian oligarchs’ assets, such as superyachts and homes. The UK has just frozen Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich’s assets.
Many companies, including Coca Cola, Pepsi, Marks & Spencer and Apple, have stopped trading in Russia and some food giants such as Nestlé and Danone have had to close some of their factories in Ukraine.

Some countries relying on commodities from Ukraine are already looking at growing some crops domestically. Charlie McConalogue, Ireland Minister for Agriculture, has asked farmers to grow more grains, fearing supply shortages caused by the conflict.

“Conflict is a main driver of hunger and food insecurity in the world,” writes Beasley. “We now have 283 million people marching towards starvation with 45 million knocking on famine’s door. The world cannot afford to let another conflict drive the numbers of hungry people even higher.”

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