The Ukraine Crisis Threatens a Sustainable Food Future

WRI.org

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already driven millions of people from their homes and left many without water, power and food. As hostilities continue, the humanitarian and economic consequences will expand far beyond the region, putting potentially millions of people around the world at risk of hunger.  

And these aren’t just short-term threats. The decisions that farmers and policymakers make over the next few weeks and months will have long-term consequences for the future of the world’s food systems. The right responses can keep the world on track for a sustainable food future. The wrong ones will worsen food insecurity and fuel climate change.

Ukrainian refugees at the Poland border.
Ukrainian refugees escape to the border town of Medyka, Poland. Millions of Ukrainian residents have fled their homes in recent weeks, due to the Russian invasion. Photo by Damian Pankowiec/Shutterstock

Emerging Food Implications of the Ukraine Crisis

The Black Sea region is a global breadbasket. The region shifted from being a net importer of grain in the early 1990s to a net exporter today. In fact, Russia and Ukraine combined produce about 12% of all food calories traded globally and account for 29% of global wheat exports, 19% of maize exports and 78% of sunflower oil exports. From 2018 to 2020, Ukraine alone was responsible for producing 50% of global sunflower oil and between 10-15% of global wheat, barley and maize.  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is resulting in — or is likely soon to cause — major impacts on global food systems.

Fertilizer prices are likely to go above and beyond current near-record levels due to economic sanctions on Russian natural gas exports and the fact that Russia is a major nitrogen fertilizer producer, responsible for nearly a tenth of global production in 2018. Prices of other agricultural inputs such as potash and phosphate may also increase, since Russia is a major producer of these as well.

At the same time, Ukraine’s farmers face the difficult choice of planting their fields or fleeing from the fighting. For those who stay, farming may be difficult: Russia is preventing diesel deliveries from arriving in key ports, while Ukraine is prioritizing its fuel for military defense. This puts the Ukrainian government in the hard position of having to divide scarce resources between immediately defending the country and supporting farmers to plant crops in time for the growing season.

A lack of planting and harvesting — combined with the inability to export grains from ports like Odessa — will constrain supplies of wheat, barley and sunflowers globally.

The situation is exacerbated by Russia banning exports of some agricultural commodities through the end of 2022 as a response to Western sanctions.  As major importers of these foods, the Middle East and North Africa are projected to feel serious effects — though, ultimately, the limited supply will create global impacts.

Increased costs and constrained supply are already driving up food prices. The UN Food Price Index hit highs this quarter not seen since the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes. Prices may continue to increase if other countries place restrictions on exports of their own crops.

And finally, price spikes that make food more expensive especially affect the poor. This could result in a growing number of people facing hunger, which in turn could drive social unrest in hard-hit countries. We’ve already seen this situation play out when the Arab Spring followed record food prices in the Middle East.

A combine harvests sunflowers in Ukraine
Harvesting sunflowers in Kharkiv. Ukraine produces half of the world’s sunflower oil. Photo by Artem Grebenyuk/Shutterstock

Choosing the Right Solutions to the Ukraine Crisis

The immediate need is relief. Ukrainians need protection, shelter, water, food and access to energy, while those around the world need affordable food and gasoline. Bioresources could be used for food, for power to fuel heat and electricity, or to replace petroleum for transportation. Decision-makers must make the right choices — now — to provide both immediate relief and a more prosperous future.

Some responses getting attention right now could actually worsen food insecurity and the world’s ability to meet globally agreed climate goals. Public and private sector leaders should avoid:

  • Plowing up nature to make up for lost food production. Price increases and supply constraints on grains and vegetable oils may drive deforestation in the tropics and destruction of conserved grasslands in the temperate zone. Plowing up natural ecosystems to create new crop production areas would release millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Using bioenergy to replace Russian natural gas. Western Europe is likely to look for substitutes for natural gas for heat and electricity. Bioenergy (the conversion of wood and other plant materials into energy) might be on that list of options. Using waste materials for energy can have economic and climate benefits. However, as hundreds of scientists and multiple scientific groups have explained, harvesting trees to generate electricity and heat increases greenhouse gas emissions over decades or even a century. Typically, half the wood felled makes it into fuel, while the rest — such as roots — is left to decay in the forest or is burned. This process removes carbon-storing trees, while burning wood releases carbon. The result is a vast carbon debt that requires many years of forest regrowth to pay back.
  • Substituting biofuels from food or energy crops for transportation to relieve price pressures on petroleum. To alleviate price hikes at the gas pump, countries might think that shifting to biofuels is an answer. But doing so would have food security implications and strain a finite natural resource — land. The world is already expanding cropland at record rates to try to meet food demands, clearing forests and woody savannas. Biofuels drive this demand for cropland even further, yet produce limited amounts of energy. The United States, for example, uses 30-40% of its corn supply for ethanol to produce only 5% of U.S. transport fuel10% of European cereal production is used for fuel. At a time when more people around the world face hunger, the world’s cropland should be used to grow food — not fuel.

7 Ways to Improve Food Security While Curbing Climate Change

Public and private sector leaders can take important actions to help stave off a worsening crisis. Some of these actions need to be started now, since farmers in the northern hemisphere are making their planting decisions in the coming days and weeks. Combined, seven approaches could help support both food security and climate goals in response to the Russian invasion.

Workers organize food and other supplies for Ukrainian refugees

Aid workers in Poznan, Poland organize supplies for Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion. Photo by monitcello/Shutterstock

In the short-term, decisions over the next few months can address the immediate crisis, such as:

1) Support the UN World Food Program’s hunger-relief efforts to address acute food crises in vulnerable regions.

Doing so helps get immediate aid to those most in need.

2) Keep agricultural markets and trade flows open.

Trade barriers and export restrictions hurt everyone, as seen in the 2007/8 food crisis when export bans countries enacted to protect their local food supplies led to painful price shocks. Now is the time to ensure the food supply chain can function by keeping borders open to agricultural trade.

3) Relax or eliminate biofuel mandates.

Our calculations show that reducing grain used for ethanol production (transportation fuel) in the United States and Europe by 50% this year would compensate for all the lost exports of Ukrainian wheat, corn, barley and rye. In the short term, we need these grains to alleviate food shortages.

There are also longer-term considerations. The European Union’s Fit for 55 Initiative, which proposes vast new incentives for bioenergy from energy crops, could continue the potential for food vs. fuel conflicts. We estimate the Fit for 55 Initiative could use a projected one-fifth of Europe’s cropland.

At the same time, European leaders can address transportation fuel requirements by electrifying their transportation systems and using wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal power to provide clean electricity. It’s important to note that this shift would free up petroleum to be used in heavy-duty transportation. To reduce demand for heating and electricity, policymakers can improve energy efficiency in homes and incentivize upgrades in industrial equipment.  The crisis is a further call for electricity system modernization, as well as new transmission and distribution and a long-term push for green hydrogen. A forthcoming article from WRI energy experts will explore this further.

Over the longer term, putting the global food system on a more sustainable pathway capable of weathering political and climate shocks will require actions such as:

4) Double down on efforts to reduce food loss and waste.

Globally, one-third of all food is lost or wasted between the farm and fork. Reducing this loss and waste effectively means increasing the amount of food available to consumers.

5) Sustainably close crop yield gaps.

Boosting crop yields on existing land is especially important for smallholder farmers in low-income countries, where doing so can lead to reduced food insecurity and increased rural incomes. Boosting crop yields also alleviates the need to clear forests and other ecosystems to make way for farms. When combined with other policies to protect nature, increasing crop yields can deliver climate and biodiversity benefits.

6) Shift to more sustainable diets.

Approximately one-third of global cropland is used to feed livestock. Shifting high-meat diets in a plant-rich direction could free up arable land to grow crops for human consumption.

7) Align agriculture subsidies with crops that are directly consumed by people.

Agriculture subsidies that support biofuel or animal production could be phased down or transferred to crops directly consumed by people.

Preventing a Looming Food Crisis

A looming food crisis is one of the devastating effects of this conflict. Now is the time for decisions that set a course for immediate as well as long-term food, energy and climate security.  

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