* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The war in Ukraine shows the high stakes risk of concentrating food production to just a few countries – the latest in a series of overlapping food crises
Jennifer Clapp is member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. Hilal Elver is former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
With the war in Ukraine constraining a key part of the world’s food supply, and food prices exploding, we are witnessing—in the words of UN head Antonio Guterres—a ‘hurricane of hunger’ unfolding before our eyes. Many of the world’s poorest people stand on the brink of crisis.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is just the latest in a series of overlapping food crises. It is our brittle, concentrated globalised food system that has created this vulnerable situation, and it must be addressed.
The immediate food crisis sparked by the war is a lack of supplies and rising hunger among Ukrainians directly affected by the conflict, some 10 million of whom have been forced to flee their homes.
But the war is also triggering a global food crisis well beyond the Black Sea region.
Ukraine and Russia, long considered “Europe’s breadbasket” with rich, fertile soils, account for around a quarter of the world’s wheat exports, as well as significant sunflower oil and maize supplies, and Russia is a major fertiliser exporter.
Global wheat and maize markets are already tight - any disruptions can cause major reverberations. March has correspondingly seen the price of wheat and other grains reach record highs, with wheat prices climbing over 50% in a matter of days.
Countries reliant on Ukrainian and Russian wheat are being left empty-handed. Nearly 30 countries rely on those imports for over 30% of their wheat. For Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, and Lebanon, it’s a far higher dependency. That’s before the threats to the coming planting and harvesting seasons, which are already projected to further diminish global food production.
There are signs that financial speculators could be making the situation even worse. With equity markets shaky, they have eagerly jumped into commodity investments, which is likely further amplifying strains on food prices.
It’s the poorest segments of society in low income countries, who typically spend over 60% of their income on food, who are starting to lose access to food.
The war in Ukraine has laid bare for all to see the fragility of the dominant global food system based on highly specialised industrial production methods, ‘just in time’ transnational supply chains, and excessive concentration.
Just eight countries account for over 90% of the world’s wheat exports, and four countries account for over 80% of the world’s maize exports. And just four firms control the vast majority of the global grain trade, while only a handful dominate the fertilisers, seeds, and agrochemicals markets.
These recent crises came fast on the heels of COVID-19, which triggered its own food crisis that is still playing out - pushing as many as 161 million more people into severe hunger in 2020, disrupting supply chains and contributing to food price inflation. Even before the Ukraine crisis, food prices had surpassed the peaks of 2008 and 2011 - events that contributed to widespread food riots and the Arab Spring uprisings.
Layered on top of these food crises is the environmental and climate emergency, which is inextricably entangled with food systems. The multiple and overlapping food crises gripping the world all thrive on the fragility of the dominant global food system. Repeated food crises are becoming far too normalised.
There has been a great deal of talk in recent years of transforming food systems. We urgently need to move beyond the talk and start working to build more resilient and diverse food systems.
In the immediate term, it is vital that the global community provides food assistance to those in Ukraine suffering from hunger, and those fleeing the conflict. The WFP estimates $600 million is needed to feed those in need in Ukraine and neighbouring countries alone.
Vulnerable populations who are losing access to affordable food in other countries also need help.
Countries that rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine must find alternative sources of food imports and diversify their food sources. With growing seasons fixed, and food prices high, this will not be easy. It’s imperative that grain exporting countries refrain from the temptation to impose export restrictions, which could further drive up food prices.
In the longer term, more resilient food systems will require countries to sustainably strengthen and diversify their domestic food production. This means investing in improving domestic food production capacity to reduce excessive reliance on imports. It also means investing in infrastructure for local food markets, and support for more sustainable forms of agriculture such as agroecology that absorb carbon and rely less on chemical fertilisers.
The war in Ukraine is tragic on so many levels. It is also forcing us to confront the urgent need for food systems transformation to escape this cycle of crisis as usual.