Patrick Galey takes a deep dive into why the global food crisis prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a sign of things to come

Three years ago, a United Nations science panel released a special assessment on land use and climate change. As with all UN climate reviews, it was highly technical and filled with caveats, dedicating chapters to subjects such as desertification, habitat degradation and sustainable development.

But lurking within the 1,300-page assessment was a stark warning: the food we need to survive is under threat and so is nearly everything we use to produce it.

Carbon pollution from human activity is already impacting crop and livestock production through “increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events,” it said. 

As temperatures continue to rise this century in step with the global population, the assessment predicted lower yields, decreased nutrient content and greater harvest failures of staple crops, increased food losses due to pests and invasive species, and sky-rocketing grain prices. 

“Given increasing extreme events and interconnectedness, risks of food system disruptions are growing,” it found.

In the three years since this warning, the pandemic ravaged economies, plunging millions of people into poverty. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent the cost of basic foodstuffs soaring and stoked fears of a hunger crisis.

The World Food Programme says that as many as 323 million people will face acute food security this year. Forty-four million are at emergency levels of hunger and some 750,000 are currently experiencing what the UN classifies as a food catastrophe, the highest number in more than a decade.

Globally, some 821 million people are under-nourished and more than 150 million children are stunted due to a lack of nutrition.

The hoped-for resumption of some grain exports from Ukraine’s blockaded Black Sea ports has eased short-term concerns for importing nations. But experts fear that the pandemic and Ukraine have exposed the underlying frailty of the global food system as climate change withers staple crops and inflation spirals out of control

“The food system is broken,” said Fatima Denton, director of the Institute of Natural Resource for Africa and an author of the 2019 UN report. “This is a huge emergency that has already landed on most of our doorsteps, and one which we need to find a rapid solution to.”

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Warning Signs

The war in Ukraine catapulted food security into public and government focus. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned in June of an “unprecedented world hunger crisis”, adding there was a risk of “multiple famines” this year.

Putin’s war plunged several countries into food insecurity almost overnight, particularly those across the Middle East and north Africa heavily reliant on wheat and sunflower oil imports from Ukraine and Russia.

But the warning lights were flashing well before.

After the pandemic squeezed transportation routes and sent shipping costs soaring, the prices of wheat, maize, and soy at the beginning of 2022 were already at multi-year highs.

Daniel Maxwell, a professor in food security at Tufts University, said that the world had been approaching several “critical points” in food prices for months if not years. “Global food prices were already at the level of more or less the level of 2011 which was when we had the famine in Somalia,” he said. 

Maxwell said that the last time wheat was as expensive as it was in February 2022 was just before the Arab Spring, when governments across the MENA region were toppled by mass protests.

The World Food Programme says that conflicts since 2009, including in Syria and Yemen, as well as exceptional droughts across the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and Central America, means the world is less able to cope with food price spikes than a decade ago. “Incomes are still depressed, labour markets are still struggling to recover, and debt is at record levels,” a spokesman said.

Gerald Theis, chairman of CEREMED France, a leading grain trader, said that cereal price inflation was a concern long before Russia’s invasion. “Basically it started more than three years ago with COVID,” he recently told a food security conference. “We started to see some protectionist behaviour, mainly with China, who started to buy grain massively – especially corn – in order to cap domestic meat price inflation.”

China is the world’s largest wheat producer but most of its grain imports – some 28 million tonnes of maize in 2021, more than Ukraine exports in a typical year – go to feed its pig herds. 

Although the world produced a record wheat crop in 2021, extended dry periods are now hampering major wheat producers’ ability to step in and cover the export shortfall from Ukraine and Russia. 

China’s Agriculture Minister warned back in March that this year’s crop was likely to be the “worst in history” following lower than average rainfall. After an unprecedented heatwave, last month Beijing warned its autumn harvest was now under “severe threat”. 

In May, India, the world’s second-largest producer, banned nearly all wheat exports following a record-shattering heatwave across its northern breadbasket. 

Nearly 70% of US wheat growing areas are experiencing drought, with the Department of Agriculture classifying just 32% of this year’s crop as “good condition” – the lowest since 1991.

In a recent crop bulletin, the department warned how the drought was “depleting topsoil moisture and significantly stressing rangeland, pastures, and various summer crops”.

Major European exporters France and Germany have both warned their 2022 harvest will be several million tonnes lower than forecast as northern Europe struggles with a persistent drought that the European Commission now believes is the worst in the last 500 years.

Shouro Dasgupta, environmental economist at the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change, said that drought was one of the most “critical climate stressors” impacting global food supply. 

“We are seeing the intensity and frequency of droughts due to climate change,” he said. “They affect crop yields, but at the same time there is a direct impact on labour. “Unless we see drought-resistant crops scaled up then the problems we are seeing now are going to seem small by comparison in future.”

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Resource (Mis)use

Going by the numbers, the last six decades mark a food success story unprecedented in human history. Food production has more than tripled since 1960 and food supply per capita, even with a surging population, has grown 30%. But this boom has come at a cost. 

Food production and transportation now account for as much as 37% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. A recent UN biodiversity assessment found that one-third of Earth’s land surface is dedicated to farming, as is three-quarters of freshwater supply. 

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that the use of nitrogen fertilisers has soared 800% since the early 1960s. As well as degrading the quality of freshwater, nitrogen fertilisers rely on natural gas for their production, leading to more warming. 

And our reliance on them is putting even further pressure on food supply. 

Russia is the world’s top producer, and its invasion of Ukraine sent prices soaring even after hitting close to all-time highs last December. 

Steve Mathews, senior vice president at the Gro Intelligence food security monitor, said the disruption in fertiliser supply from Russia, as well as from Belarus, would have “multi-year effects on food security globally”.  

“Even if everything gets resolved today it’s not clear that we will recover to prevent a slow-moving disaster,” he added.

Mathews estimated that an additional five million people would go hungry each day due to disruptions in fertiliser supply.

Wheat, which makes up 20% of the world’s daily calories, is especially fertiliser-intensive, as it uses up soil nutrients such as phosphorus which aren’t easy to replace naturally. 

Fergus Sinclair, chief scientist at the CIFOR-ICRAF climate and biodiversity research institute, said that food security in several nations – including major producers – was directly linked to fertiliser supply.

“We can see that a lot of countries think they’ve got a high food security because they’re producing a lot in their own country, based on the import of fertilisers and pesticides that might require foreign exchange to purchase,” he said. “It means that they don’t have much food security at all.” 

At the same time, an over-reliance on just a handful of staple crop varieties makes it much harder for the global food system to adjust to unexpected crises. 

“The big emphasis on crop breeding over the last century has been around a very few staple crops and breeding them for monoculture,” said Sinclair. “There are some quite big issues about the way we organize our entire society that create quite major stresses for an agricultural system.”

An additional stressor to food supply is just how many crops are grown that don’t end up on human plates. As much as 80% of all agricultural land is either used to rear or feed animals, and 4% is used for biofuels

Mathews calculated that the amount of energy contained within the corn and soy products that go to either feed animals or make biofuels would be enough to provide an additional 1.9 billion daily meals for humans.

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Choke Points

For many observers, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine exposed several weaknesses in the global food chain. 

Supply lines have been stripped back over the decades to accommodate the “just-in-time” delivery of goods expected of modern consumers, making them more efficient but simultaneously more vulnerable to shocks.

Mathews said that the blockage of Ukraine and Russia’s Black Sea ports, as well as south-east Asian sea hubs being saddled with delays due to draconian Coronavirus measures in China, were all combining to exacerbate shortages in food-importing nations. “So while there is a sufficient supply of calories in the world to take care of everyone, the notion that we can get them where they need to be quickly enough seems doubtful,” he said. 

Around half of all calories travel via ship. This has added to the upward pressure on food prices – a shipping container now costs roughly eight times what it did before COVID. But it also adds to food supply fragility. 

A recent study simulated the effects of disruption at each of the world’s major shipping choke points, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez and Panama canals. It found that any holdups would lead to “significant shortages for food importers”.

Moreover, the transport of staple grains is largely controlled by a handful of distributors. One recent estimate found that up to 90% of global grain distribution is provided by just four private firms. 

Keely Croxton, professor of logistics at The Ohio State University, said that company consolidation had contributed to making the food chain “brittle”.

“There’s a small number of companies controlling a large portion of the flow of goods,” she said. “It limits innovation, limits problem solving, you don’t have the competition on price. A small disruption causes a bigger problem because we don’t have back up locations to flow product through.”

Extreme weather also poses an immediate risk to food supply, with import and export nexuses increasingly vulnerable. 

Last year, a cyclone shut China’s Yantian Port – a major continental hub – causing a major shipping bottleneck. Also in 2021, Hurricane Ida struck the US Gulf coast, sending soybean exports tumbling 96 percent. The storm also forced plants producing ammonia – a key fertiliser component – to shut down.

“Climate change is going to be already increasingly putting added stress on infrastructure and the value chain in general,” said Dasgupta. “It is constraining the food system’s ability to expand in directions that you need it to.”

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Worse to Come 

As the first Russian troops were marching into Ukraine in late February, the UN issued its latest review of the current and future impacts from climate change.

It predicted that extreme events such as heatwaves and drought will make up to 10% of current crop and livestock rearing areas “climatically unsuitable” by mid-century. Under the current carbon emissions trajectory, this will apply to a third of all arable land by 2100. 

In a scenario of strong population growth and limited climate change mitigation, up to 183 million more people in low-income countries will be under-nourished within the next 30 years, the assessment showed. 

At 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels – the cap aimed for under the Paris Climate Agreement – up to three billion people will experience chronic water scarcity, increasing competition for dwindling resources, it said.

“For as long as humans have existed most conflicts were caused by water security and food security,” said Dasgupta, who co-wrote chapter five. “Increasingly, with climate change, these impacts are going to be showing up in conflicts.”

Because a warmer climate will increase the geographic spread of pests and invasive species, such as the locust swarms that devastated east African cereal crops last year, pesticide use is predicted to grow, accelerating soil degradation even while the chemicals lose their efficiency, the UN assessment found.

Around 35% of all food is pollinated by insects and birds, and pollinator populations are already being decimated by pesticides and higher temperatures, with up to 50% of insects likely to have their range reduced by half this century.

Studies have shown that crops grown in conditions with higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations contain fewer vital micronutrients, and increasing carbon pollution is projected to lower nutritional quality of wheat, and other staples.

Hotter temperatures also quicken the rate of food loss as crops spoil faster. They also increase the likelihood of rolling blackouts that render refrigeration systems unusable. 

“Together, these impacts threaten to reduce the supply of varied, nutrient-rich foods to poor populations that already suffer ill health,” the report said.

Longer-term, the assessment highlighted some potentially irreversible threats to food supply. These include coastal erosion made worse by rising sea levels, in which arable land is simply consumed by the ocean. Extreme soil erosion and degradation due to flooding and excessive fertiliser use could render huge swathes of land barren for generations to come.  

“In some situations, exceeding the limits of adaptation can trigger escalating losses or result in undesirable transformational changes… such as forced migration, conflicts or poverty,” it said. 

Elizabeth Robinson, director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said that the protectionist measures taken by countries in the wake of the pandemic would multiply as climate shocks impact domestic food supply.

“Climate change is just going to make it that much worse. It can be enough to lead to the amplification rather than dampening of potential systemic risks,” she said. “This idea that the markets will equilibrate where food is. It’s not obvious, I think, with climate change, whether that’s going to hold.”

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Solutions Exist, But Need Implementing

A major driver of food insecurity and greenhouse gas emissions is food loss – that is, food that is grown but which never makes it to market – and food waste – food that is purchased but ultimately thrown away. 

The IPCC land use report found that up to 30% of all food produced worldwide is either lost or wasted, costing at least $1 trillion annually. Were it a country, food loss and waste would be the third-largest emitter on the planet

As countries wait ever longer for food imports to arrive, Mathews, from Gro Intelligence, said food loss in 2022 is likely to be exceptionally high. 

“One of the things we’re discussing now in order to make up for the loss of Ukraine’s crop is moving food over larger distances,” he said. “And that is one of the best ways to guarantee a lot of waste.”

Then there’s the issue of meat. A global switch to plant-based diets would for example save up to 11 million lives by 2050, while going vegan could reduce food system greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70%.

Moreover, eating less meat would mean more farmland to grow more crops and feed more people. One 2017 study showed that substituting beans for beef in US diets alone would free up 42% of all arable land.

“More land is used to feed livestock than it is to feed humans,” said Teresa Anderson, climate justice lead at the ActionAid charity. “It’s an incredibly inefficient use of land in an era where we’re trying to make sure we can feed humanity in the face of climate change.”

There are a number of farming techniques that can also alleviate the need for fertiliser and water. Agroforestry, the process of combining trees with livestock and/or plants, is currently practiced by some 1.2 billion people globally, mainly among smallholders. 

“Trees themselves produce food, but they also help to maintain soil health, fix nitrogen, tighten nutrient and water cycles and reduce the need for pesticides,” said Sinclair, an expert on the practice.

There are also technological fixes already on the market – such as agrovoltaics, which combines cropland with solar panel installations – that could help shore up food supply while reducing the agricultural industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

In 2009, wealthy countries promised to provide $100 billion annually to help vulnerable states adapt to the impacts of climate change, including in the agriculture sector. This has still not materialised

“For many countries in the global south, agriculture is also the backbone of the economy,” said Anderson. “So if climate disasters are driving farmers off the land on a large scale that will have major implications for our country’s overall economic stability.

“That’s why we need the wealthy, industrialised polluting countries in the Global North who have done the most to cause the climate crisis to recognise that responsibility to help.”

African nations, for example, spend a huge percentage of their agricultural budgets on fertiliser, which drains funds away from training farmers to adopt more sustainable practices or to grow more varied crops. 

“The continent of Africa has the potential to feed itself but it is spending over $3 billion annually on food imports,” said Denton. 

With resumed Ukrainian grain exports and food price rises appearing to plateau – albeit much higher than even a year ago – there are signs the current acute food crisis may be set to stabilise in the short-term. 

But Denton wants people to be under no illusion that the type of food shocks witnessed now will, without a total transformation in the food chain, become commonplace in future. 

“This is a microcosm of the wider vulnerability that we face,” she said. “It’s almost as if we need some kind of shock therapy to get out of this complacency and this feeling that we can just continue doing business as usual and all will be fine. Because all this tells us that our food supply systems have huge problems.”

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