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We need to talk more about food security. Picture: BLOOMBERG
We need to talk more about food security. Picture: BLOOMBERG

While Putin’s war in Ukraine is delivering shocks to the energy market and driving up fertiliser prices, the bigger problem has become the soaring cost of wheat. Russia is steering the world towards an increasingly severe food security crisis — compounding the shortages already caused by the pandemic and climate change.

More than 70% of Ukraine is prime agricultural land that produces a major share of the world’s wheat, as well as its corn, barley, rye, sunflower oil and potatoes. Ukraine’s crop exports to the EU, China, India and throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East are plummeting as Russian forces paralyse Ukrainian ports. They could soon cease altogether. Meanwhile, heavy Western sanctions are disrupting the flow of crop exports from Russia, the world’s top wheat producer.

Civilizations from the Mayans of Mesoamerica to the Vikings of Scandinavia rose as their food supplies flourished and fell as they declined.

Food security organisations are already hard-pressed to deal with spreading hunger. Expanding shortages “will be hell on earth”,  UN World Food Programme director David Beasley predicted last week. The threat is greatest in countries already teetering on the edge of famine, and in those that rely heavily on Ukrainian and Russian imports. Beasley said his organisation will “have no choice but to take food from the hungry to feed the starving”, and unless more funding pours in immediately, “we risk not even being able to feed the starving”. 

The Ukraine war is teaching international leaders a lesson they should have learnt already: long-term agricultural strategy must be built into national security plans. That means starting now to invest in more sustainable farming practices, climate-resilient crops and new growing technologies, as well as agile supply chains that can pivot around disruptions when needed. Food security must also become a central focus of international trade agreements.

Hunger fuels civil unrest and a vicious cycle of disruptions. It adds burdens, distractions and enormous costs to already strained governments as they scramble to import food at higher prices. Eventually, it can lead to mass exodus: hungry civilians fleeing their homeland in search of food.  

For millennia, robust food systems have conferred political power. Civilisations from the Mayans of Mesoamerica to the Vikings of Scandinavia rose as their food supplies flourished and fell as they declined. Even nowadays, the nations with the least reliable food supplies tend to have the least diverse economies and the most conflict-prone governments. In 2012, hunger helped foment the Arab Spring after droughts crippled wheat fields in Russia and the US, causing grain prices to spike worldwide. Food riots broke out in dozens of cities worldwide.

No less than half of the wheat purchased by the UN for food assistance worldwide comes from Ukraine.

The Ukraine invasion has a negative influence on food security for:

  • The people of Ukraine and Russia who are experiencing supply disruptions;
  • Countries relying heavily on their exports; and
  • Broader populationsare feeling the shock of higher food prices. Worldwide, 283-million people are acutely food insecure and 45-million are on the edge of famine. Famine-stricken countries such as Yemen stand to suffer most from dwindling Ukranian food exports, but also vulnerable are Egypt, Turkey and Bangladesh, which import billions of dollars of Ukrainian wheat annually.

Many other nations already struggling with food supplies depend on Ukrainian exports. Kenya derives 34% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and 70% of its population lacks money for food. A total 31% of Morocco’s wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine, and 56% of its population can’t afford a stable food supply. No less than half of the wheat purchased by the UN for food assistance worldwide comes from Ukraine.

But no country is insulated from food disruptions — including and especially the US. With all the calls we’ve been hearing for greater energy independence, few have fretted over the fact that while the US exports about $150bn annually in food products, it imports nearly as much — about $145bn. 

Why isn’t food security a key topic at major global conferences? It was barely discussed last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, nor was it a priority at the COP26 climate conference or at the UN Conference on Trade and Development. The EU, World Trade Organisation and other international trade groups must prioritise stable food-trade relationships — especially for the poorest and most food-vulnerable countries.

Bloomberg Opinion

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion.

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