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Ukraine war has brought the world to the brink of a food crisis

“Ukraine can feed at least half a billion people on the planet if we take the minimum consumption rates,” said the president of the Ukrainian Agrarian Confederation Leonid Kozachenko two years ago.

Ukraine has carried the moniker “the breadbasket of Europe” for many years and is among the top three grain exporters and a world leader in soybeans and sunflower oil. Together, Russia and Ukraine supply 30% of the world’s wheat and barley.

Conflicts feed hunger

War and hunger are intertwined. Where war is raging, fields, harvests, farmers, food production and transportation are affected. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is no exception.

David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, has warned that the war in Ukraine has created “a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe” and will have a global impact “beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II” because many of the Ukrainian farmers who produce a significant amount of the world’s wheat are now fighting Russians.

Ukrainian farmers who should be able to focus on fertilising their crops are struggling to keep their farms afloat amidst a war. “There are reports of Russians mining the fields, the roads to the fields, not to mention a lot of unexploded ordinance and bodies in the fields,” as was reported in a recent article published in National Geographic.

Deepening commodity supply chain pain driving up the price of food

The conflict has further disrupted the already stretched supply chains. From copper to palladium, and oil to nickel, commodities supply chains have been fractured, resulting in a surge in oil and gas prices. In particular, food security and supply (grains – wheat, corn, barley, rye and maize, and sunflower seed products) have been hit hard, and that has driven food prices up.

In 2021, Ukraine harvested record high crop of grains and oilseeds, but now the farmers are short of fertilizer supplies, as well as pesticides and herbicides. Disruption in the fertilizer trade can impact every farmer in the world and cause a significant decline in global food production. Fertilizers provide crops with nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which allow crops to grow bigger, faster and produce more food.

Fertilizer trade and fuel disruptions presage food crisis

If the global trade in fertilizer is further interrupted, it will mean higher costs for farmers across the world, and in turn more food inflation at a time when the global food prices have already soared. And what compounds the existing disruption is that even if they had enough of those materials, they can’t get enough fuel to power their equipment.

With two of the world’s top crop producers at war, we are at the brink of a full-blown global food crisis. “With the conflict dragging on and the start of planting season just a week away, the agricultural time bomb is ticking ever louder. Some 26 countries around the world get more than half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine,” observed Arif Husain, chief economist at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in a recently published article in National Geographic.

“If this war doesn’t get sorted out in the next couple of weeks, things will get even worse,” Husain explained to National Geographic. “That means Ukraine will not be able to plant corn. The winter wheat in the ground will not be fertilized, and the harvest sharply reduced. That’s a real danger. They are a country of 40 million people, but they produce food for 400 million. That’s the reality of a globalized world. We are all in this together.”

“In the coming weeks, farmers should also start planting other crops, such as corn and sunflowers, but they are struggling to get the seeds they need,” remarked Dykun Andriy, chairman of the Ukrainian Agricultural Council, which represents about 1,000 farmers cultivating five million hectares.

Given that farmers may not be able to get adequate fuel to run their equipment, spring farm work will be stalled, and this year’s harvests significantly reduced or doomed. This could plunge the world into food shortages, inflame the scourge of world hunger with limited access to food for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and spark political turmoil far from the conflict zone. In particular, the Middle East, North and East Africa, which rely on Russian and Ukrainian vegetable oil and grain supplies, will be adversely affected because of the hold-up on food imports.  

United Nations World Food Programme rationing food supplies

The WFP is planning to feed a record 140 million people this year, including more than three million displaced Ukrainians, as well as some 44 million others in 28 countries teetering on the brink of famine. However, given that WFP’s costs spiked after the invasion, rising by US$71 million per month and creating a $10 billion shortfall for the coming year, it’s forced them to begin rationing food supplies to the people who need it most, reported National Geographic.

With Ukrainian ports closed and Russian grain deals on pause because of sanctions, 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize from last year’s harvest in Ukraine and Russia are stuck, WFP’s report states.

Conclusion

Australia, Argentina, India and the US could make up for a portion of the grain shortfalls, as per a recently published report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). The report’s preliminary assessment is that, due to the war, 20-30% of wheat, corn and sunflower seed crops will either not be planted or go unharvested during Ukraine’s 2022-2023 season.

But it’s the fate of this year’s crop in Ukraine that is a current cause of worry, as is the concern of a prolonged disruption in fertilizer flows, and a major drought or climate shock in one of the world’s breadbaskets this year.

The war between two of the leading food producers has been catastrophic for the global food market. With the Black Sea closed, Ukraine, which boasts some of the most fertile land on earth thanks to its rich black soil “chernozem” that is perfectly suited to growing grains, is no longer linked to its markets. Therein lies the major risk that this conflict, if protracted, could push millions of people worldwide into severe food insecurity, hunger and economic fragility.

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