Ukraine war turning food security concerns into global crisis

Polly BotsfordTuesday 2 August 2022

Food security has taken centre stage this summer, especially given the 22 million tonnes of wheat destined for world markets that has been stuck in Ukraine for five months and has only, as August begins, started to leave. Until a deal was reached in late July, this wheat grown in Ukraine – a hugely significant supplier particularly to the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey – couldn't get to its markets because Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have become a war zone: there are mines on the coast, and many areas are under Russian control.

These supplies are intended for countries that are the least able to cope with any disruption. Lebanon, for example, imports around 60 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine, while for Tunisia it’s 45 per cent. Ukraine and Russia together are among the top exporters of other staples too, such as barley, maize and sunflower oil.

It’s no surprise then that the UN’s Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance (‘UN GCRG’) recently stated that up to 323 million people globally could be ‘acutely food insecure’ or ‘high risk’ this year.

The situation isn’t only about the war in Ukraine – food insecurity pre-dates Russia’s invasion. ‘Recent global events, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the climate crisis, multiple conflicts around the world [as well as] the war in Ukraine, have all heavily affected agrifood systems in multiple ways,’ explained Qu Dongyu, the Director-General of the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to governments in early July. The FAO has been talking about food insecurity for some time and a world summit on the issue was held as far back as 1996.

With a problem so complex, coming up with ways and means to alleviate the pressure on supplies is a huge task. In the immediate term, at the recent G7 meeting held in Germany in June, governments agreed to a US$4.5bn commitment to tackle food insecurity and also set up an alliance with the World Bank to ‘coordinate’ short term responses. Negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by Turkey, brought the blockade caused by the war to an end, meanwhile.

Recent global events, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the climate crisis, multiple conflicts around the world [as well as] the war in Ukraine, have all heavily affected agrifood systems

Qu Dongyu
Director-General, UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation

But after the immediate term, other strategies need to be invoked, say experts. As Lynn Bergeson, Co-Chair of the IBA Agricultural Law Committee and Managing Partner of Bergeson & Campbell in Washington, DC, says, ‘There are these huge pressures on global agricultural systems: areas of aridity and so on. We need a food supply system that is nimbler and delivers the goods safely.’

The question is which longer-term strategies to consider and how to achieve this safe system. Working out the best solutions and how best to use the money made available is tricky, not least because in agriculture nothing moves quickly.

One possible consideration would be to shift away from crops that don’t directly feed people. There are two specific aspects to this: land that grows crops to feed animals and land that grows crops for fuel. At the G7, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, spoke out over what he argues is the misuse of land for biofuels at a time of crisis, and how such acreage should be diverted back to food for calorific consumption. Such a move is supported by Germany, and, ironically, by some environmentalists who see biofuel as a measure that only enables wealthy countries to feed their car habits.

But the strategy is currently opposed by the Biden Administration in the US, which argues that biofuels are an essential part of any decarbonisation strategy.

In terms of land use that goes to feeding animals, there has been concern for some time about the huge costs that our meat-based diets give rise to. Within the EU for instance, estimates suggest that much as 70 per cent of oilseeds and 60 per cent of cereals go to livestock. Put another way, of the total calories available for food globally, 36 per cent goes on animal feed, according to environmental research. Strategies and policies for reducing meat consumption and the cattle we keep, could, in fact, do much to alleviate food insecurity.

The new Global Alliance on Food Security established by the G7 in June emphasises the spectre of the climate crisis and how destabilising it is – and will be – to world food supplies. The Alliance highlights the longer-term necessity of ‘supporting farmers to become less vulnerable to both droughts and extreme rains’. It, therefore, stresses this is best achieved through a gradual ‘transition to a sustainable agricultural production base.’

Sustainable agriculture, though it encompasses many different elements, is the bedrock of better food security for the FAO too. Margret Vidar, legal officer at the FAO, tells Global Insight that ‘We feel sustainability is at the heart of change.’ Sustainability is also a key plank of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, a hugely ambitious framework aimed at developing more environmentally-sound food systems in the region, which was published in 2020.

Another way to look at food security is to focus on getting the most out of the fields that are planted, such as by increasing yields and/or reducing production costs. Enter the role of ‘agritech’ – embracing various technologies from robotics to digital tools, hydroponics and so on, and the highly contentious development of genetically modified crops (GM).

GM has fierce opponents and determined proponents. Globally, it has been a point of divergence between the US and the EU. This may be about to change as the EU and the UK consider opening the door to what they refer to as ‘gene-editing’. Depending on where you sit in the GM debate, gene-editing is either GM by any other name, or it involves techniques that are distinct and less risky than GM. The UK is currently considering a law that will allow for much faster regulatory procedures for gene-editing; the European Commission has now launched a consultation on the subject too.

With all these facets of food security up for debate, it’s not surprising that there’s no consensus globally on which path or paths to take. There is, however, agreement that something must be done to avert a crisis.

Image credit: Yuri and Oleksiy, Ukrainian farmers wearing body armours and helmets, work at the topsoil in a field, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine April 26, 2022. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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