No sooner had we started believing that reprieve was round the corner and that we were, collectively, out of the woods, with the disarray and disruption ushered in by the pandemic finally laid to rest, that a more insidious threat to global security looms lofty on the horizon.

And it’s not climate change, even though this fully qualifies as an existential challenge that humans still refuse to address. It’s the imminent food crisis, which threatens to drive hundreds of millions around the world to the brink of starvation, to ratchet up the mass movement of people and to trigger even more armed conflicts.

Ukraine and Russia supply 12 per cent of the world’s traded calories. For instance, the duet supplies 28 per cent of globally traded wheat, 29 per cent of the barley, 15 per cent of the maize and 75 per cent of the sunflower oil.

For some countries, the duet’s role in the provision of food is even more significant. Libya and Egypt import two-thirds of their cereals from the duet that are also responsible for half the cereal imports to Tunisia and Lebanon.

In crude numbers, cereal exports from Ukraine, Europe’s famed ‘bread basket’, directly feed 400 million people worldwide. No wonder then that the war in Ukraine has skyrocketed by 53 per cent the price of wheat on the global market since the start of the year.

Climate change lived up to its reputation as an exacerbation of existing pressures when unseasonal high temperatures in India (the world’s second-largest exporter of wheat) this spring prompted the country to stymie further wheat exports due to concerns over the abundance of its harvest, propelling global inflation even further as a result of food shortage concerns.

The gobsmacking irony of it all is that this year’s harvest from Ukraine (equivalent to a staggering 25 million tons, tantamount to the annual consumption of all the world’s least developed countries) is largely sitting idle within silos in Black Sea port cities in the country, largely in Odessa, given that exports (amounting to roughly five million tons of wheat per month prior to the war) have been throttled by a Russian naval blockage and mining campaign.

Russia and Ukraine supply 28 per cent of globally traded wheat- Alan Deidun

Some wheat is trickling out of Ukraine but it is obviously not enough... with the same silos still being cluttered with last year’s harvest, there is no available storage space for this year’s crop, raising prospects of crop rot. Concerns over the impact on immigration and global security and stability that the events unfolding in eastern Ukraine are having are definitely not far-fetched.

For instance, last February, the head of the World Food Programme (David Beasley) had this stark warning for the Munich Security Conference: “If we do not address the situation immediately, over the next nine months we will see famine, we will see destabilisation of nations and we will see mass migration.”

The domino effect on global food supplies that the war in Ukraine has triggered will not only have a direct effect but also an indirect one. For instance, the gains of the Green (Agricultural) Revolution of the 1960s, which has bumped up crop yields through a massive deployment of fertilisers and pesticides, are set to be dramatically reversed as a result of export restrictions imposed by Russia.

In 2021, 25 countries imported more than 30 per cent of their fertiliser from Russia. Counter restrictions on the importation of Russian oil and gas have translated into higher costs for the production of nitrogen fertilisers.

The brunt will not be borne uniformly by the world’s nations. For example, households in emerging economies spend on average 25 per cent of their budget on food, with the figure being as high as 40 per cent in sub-Saharan countries. In Egypt, bread provides 30 per cent of all daily calories, with many countries in the Persian Gulf and North Africa eating at least twice as much bread per person as gluten-loving Americans.

A prescribed change in diet of sorts might be on the cards here so as to address the current global shortage in cereals.

The looming crisis should spearhead the world to adapt the ways it exploits cereals if it we are to manage to feed everyone. Animal husbandry needs downsizing, especially considering that a third of America’s maize is devoured by cattle, that around 40 per cent of the wheat grown in the EU is eaten by cows and that 28 million tons of maize (more than what is exported by Ukraine in a whole year) were imported by China in 2021 just to feed its burgeoning hog population.

The alternative energy sector is also in the spotlight. For example, 10 per cent of all grains are deployed to make biofuel while 18 per cent of all vegetable oils go to biodiesel. Current priorities dictate otherwise. France and Croatia, in fact, have weakened mandates that require petrol to include fuel from crops.

The stars seem aligned for the perfect storm come next winter in the northern hemisphere, with 2023 promising to eclipse the woes of 2020 (the year of the pandemic). Are we still in time to avert such a crisis?

Article adapted from a May 2022 edition of The Economist.


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