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Trouble in the world’s bread basket: Bracing for global food insecurity

There has been an incredible outpouring of international support for the people of Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, which must continue throughout the ongoing war and its terrible humanitarian - and environmental – consequences. Alongside the immediate need to support the Ukrainian people , the world must prepare to counteract the war’s knock-on effects on human security beyond the European continent. Much is being said about Europe’s high energy dependency on Russian gas. By contrast, the consequences of Putin's war on Ukraine also include massive potential disruption to the global food supply, already facing risks due to climate change.  

Russia provides 10% of the world’s gas supply. Yet, when it comes to wheat, Russia and Ukraine together account for 29% of the world’s supply. The region also exports significant amounts of sunflower oil, rapeseed, corn and honey, not to mention fertiliser. Ukraine and bordering parts of Russia are home to the famous mineral-rich ‘black soil’ that provides the perfect growing conditions for grains, giving the region its fame as the ‘world’s bread basket’.

Throughout the modern history of the region, wheat has remained an important element of its economy and its external relations. It is not by accident that wreaths of wheat appeared on the symbol of the Soviet Union. With 70% of its highly fertile land being dedicated to farming, Ukraine is an agricultural giant. The Ukrainian blue and yellow flag, which today flies in displays of solidarity around the world, represents a field of wheat under a blue sky. The Crimea peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, is an important grain-producing region, and the Black Sea to which it has access is crucial for supply logistics. However, Crimea suffers from critical water deficit, ever since Ukraine cut off most of its water supply as a response to the Russian invasion. Indeed, the rise and fall of Russian and Ukrainian wheat in the past century go hand in hand with domestic and international political developments. 

Prices and protests  

Rapid onset climate change impacts in the recent past can give a glimpse of the potential consequences of sudden shocks to Russia’s wheat supply for global food and human security.

In 2010, a series of droughts resulting from the highest temperature peaks in 130 years decimated much of Russia’s wheat harvest. In order to secure its domestic supply, Russia implemented a grain export ban lasting for about a year. For several countries dependent on Russian wheat, such as Egypt and Pakistan, this led to grave supply shortages and price spikes – and knock-on effects on stability.

Many affected importing countries already faced systemic social and political fragility, poverty, unemployment and grievances against unaccountable elites. Faced with food shortages and high prices, populations took to the streets in protest, and were often met which violence. Social upheaval spread throughout the region, morphing in some countries into revolution and toppling decades-old authoritarian regimes. These events are what we call the ‘Arab Spring’. Grain shortages alone didn’t give rise to the Arab Spring; a concoction of social economic and political aggravating factors had long been brewing below the surface. However, food insecurity, or even its mere prospect, is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back in fragile contexts.


Droughts and the Grain Export Ban in Russia

This Factbook case study illustrates the drivers behind Russia's grain export ban of 2011 as an example for the policy dynamics of a major grain exporter and the far-reaching consequences for importers.

Demand and dependency  

Russia’s attack on Ukraine suggests that food exports from both countries are set to suffer considerable shocks. The current war could have far bigger consequences than Russia’s grain export ban of 2011, given that it now also includes Ukraine, and that not only grains will be affected. Those monitoring the world’s food supply are already sounding the alarm. David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, has  warned about the consequences of the conflict for the agency’s food aid programmes in war-thorn countries like Yemen.

Take a look at this Twitter thread on how the war in Ukraine could affect food supplies (with graphs).

While the global North will also experience some effects of sanctions on Russia and associated supply shocks, as big export economies they will also see an increase in output prices and are likely to manage a way out of the food crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU demonstrated that it had sufficient coping mechanisms to deal with the sudden shocks to food supply. The story is very different for net importer countries that depend heavily on Russian and Ukrainian wheat. For several of them, particularly in the most dependent regions like the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic has already contributed to an increase in poverty, social inequality and unemployment, and highlighted governance weaknesses. The pandemic has also put the brakes on coping mechanisms such as migration, and reduced the capacity of EU and other western governments to support fragile contexts facing climate-linked fragility risks. State and social fragility are on the rise, making the prospect of widespread food shortages and price spikes particularly dangerous for regional and international security.

Besides the impacts to Europe and the Middle East’s daily bread, there are other risks that need to be taken into consideration. Ukraine is a major feed corn producer. Since the war broke out, farmers in many  regions are now scrambling to buy maize to feed livestock, as prices rapidly soar. Russia and Belarus are major fertilizer exporters, with their combined potash production having the largest worldwide market share. While EU production covers part of its domestic fertlizer demand, 60% of it consists of nitrogen, which requires natural gas for its production. To date, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has avoided taking a stance on the conflict, even to the disappointment of large sections of his base, likely due in part to the Brazilian agriculture sector’s dependence on Russia’s fertilizer. Similarly, India imports about a fifth of its potash from Belarus, meaning it is unlikely that it will join the West in sanctions against the country.

Crisis upon crisis

With war on the EU’s doorstep, the once healthy interdependencies that help keep the balance among competing powers are facing shocks unseen in decades. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is forcing the EU, as well as MENA and the world at large, to brace for far-reaching disruptions to food supply. There may also be cascading risks emerging from further supply issues, and the potential for unrest in fragile regions due to knock-on effects of the conflict.

Moreover, one crisis does not stop the other. Global food systems are increasingly having to deal with declining yields and lost harvests due to climate-related impacts. Shocks to food supply are projected to become more frequent and intense throughout the globe. Mitigating climate-related impacts to food systems on an international scale requires strong multilateral partnerships and open trade channels, and this is precisely what is under threat now.

The international community must react fast. It is important to put all efforts in isolating Russia to weaken the Kremlin’s capacity for aggression, while also fostering a strong community of mutual cooperation between like-minded nations to help dampen the impacts of this crisis. It is imperative that states and economic blocks don’t turn to non-inclusive protectionist measures that can backfire into cascading risks that transcend borders. The war between Russia and Ukraine is also a stark reminder that diversification of supply is crucial in times of crisis – whether political, climatic or otherwise.