Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Its Global Impact on Food Security and Food Systems
The casualties of conflict and war are numerous and varied, and Russia’s invasion of t Ukraine has clearly demonstrated this. In an era where food systems, both global, regional and even local, are heavily intertwined and interconnected, from local and regional use of fertilizer inputs (e.g., fertilizer is supplied globally, with Belarus and Russia producing some 20% of world supply) evidenced by the impact of the Ukraine conflict on supply and prices in recent months. This global dependency and interconnectivity in modern food systems is nowhere more obvious and self-evident to the world as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ongoing conflict has clearly demonstrated the importance and role of supply chains and market linkage and food system actors in the varied roles and responsibilities of actors in those chains, and the interdependency and mutual reliance among countries of an efficient and operational food system, working with agreed rules and regulations, that are respected by all actors in the system, being paramount to a functioning food system. Any breakdown or change to the system has enormous consequences. We see this not only with food production but with other raw materials, no less is the case of energy and its supply and production across borders. The dependency of many countries on relatively cheap energy (e.g., Russian oil and gas), now apparently weaponized, has clear ramifications not only in countries affected directly, but in many others around the world dependent on staple grains and crops being produced at reasonable prices and in volumes that meet world demand from the region.
Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe and the world, a major exporter of agriculture products with some $27 billion in exports last year, has six primary products with over a billion dollars in export sales: corn ($5.8 billion), sunflower seed ($5.7 billion), wheat ($5.1 billion), rapeseed ($1.7 billion), barley ($1.3 billion) and sunflower meal ($1.2 billion). Combined, these top six products accounted for more than 77% of Ukraine’s agricultural exports last year. Ukraine faces enormous challenges on the food security front that not only impact its own food security, but has ripple effects around the world. Ukraine accounts for 10% of the world wheat market, 13% of the barley market, 15% of the maize market and is the most important player in the market for sunflower oil (over 50% of world trade). As far as Russia is concerned, these figures are, respectively, 24% (wheat), 14% (barley) and 23% (sunflower oil). North Africa and the Middle East import over 50% of their cereal needs from Ukraine and Russia. Lebanon imports some 80% of its wheat from Ukraine. Ukraine is also an important supplier of (feed) maize to the European Union and China. The dramatic rise in food prices (wheat) already is partially attributable to the conflict, the breakdown of trade corridors and logistics and infrastructure are impacting food transport, availability and price. This should not be taken lightly as it has worldwide impacts, particularly in countries in the Middle East and North and Eastern Africa, major importers of Ukrainian and Russian grain. Egypt is still waiting for 6.6 million tons of wheat. Turkey is a major wheat importer, 4 million tons. Bangladesh is close to 4 million tons, and Iran is 1.7 million tons. But also Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan, the Middle East and North African countries, depend on wheat from the Black Sea region. Conflict impacts trade flows, reducing market access, making commodities more expensive or even unavailable. This is clearly one of the outcomes already seen in the Ukraine conflict.
Due to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is estimated to lose some 50% of its arable area for cultivation this year (2022), and some 10 million hectares (ha) will not be planted. The Donbass region of Ukraine was and is recognized as one of the more fertile regions in Ukraine and a major producer of cereal grain and sunflower seed (some 62% of sunflower seed is produced in Ukraine and Russia; 29% of global wheat is produced in both countries). Its farmers are either fighting on the front lines and or have limited access to their farms, limited access to inputs and subsequent loss in spring planting opportunities. Prices of wheat have risen some 50% since February 2022 and 80% since February 2021 (according to the World Bank 2022 spring conference on the war in Ukraine and food security). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index indicates that food prices alone in the first quarter of this year have risen some 34% higher than this time last year (see figure 1).
Access to inputs and the higher costs of inputs and their availability — particularly in countries heavily dependent on Ukraine and Russia and those countries in which the conflict has impacted supply chains and are seeing an impact on livelihoods already — and small producers’ inability to access fertilizers, as well as other inputs will increase the market disruption beyond 2022. Indeed, should countries react by restricting trade and export bans of certain food commodities, this is likely to exacerbate the problem. Some 36 countries around the world import more than 55% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. It is estimated that some 107 economies around the world (see figure 3) are heavily exposed to either one of the three major results of the conflict thus far, namely rising food process, rising energy process and tightening financial conditions. The majority of these countries are those where people struggle to acquire healthy diets, are dependent on food imports and where governments have limited resources to address these external factors, per the Global Crisis Response Group.
The impact of the conflict on staple crops, notably wheat, is already well-documented. In the case of Sudan and Somalia for example, countries that are heavily dependent on wheat imports, it is having a devastating effect already. In the case of Somalia, key drivers of food insecurity are frequent and prolonged drought, high food prices, and conflict and displacement. Over 90% of Somali wheat dependency is from Ukraine and Russia. Somalia has some 4.8 million people in food crisis, of which 1.2 million are in emergency need. It is projected this is likely to increase to 6 million in crisis by June 2022. In 2020, countries experiencing food crisis import some 34% of the total Ukrainian exports of wheat and maize products and 74% of Russian exports of wheat. Global wheat price rises, driven in large part by the Ukraine conflict, are impacting Somali households as they are heavily dependent on purchases from the market place. The production and supply chain impact of the Ukraine conflict is expected to add further pressure on food prices, putting it out of the reach of many and subjecting many millions of Somalis to food insecurity.
What can be done to help mitigate the impact of this conflict? Clearly, it is in the interest of all parties that the conflict ends. While there are no clear-cut solutions to end the impact barring a stop in the conflict and return to normal, which in and of itself will be time dependent, some immediate mitigation measures can be undertaken, and World Vision United States is already doing some of this, as are many other actors. As of day 61 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (April 27, 2022), some 24 million people are in need, some 5.3 million refugees were created and an another 8.5 million are expected (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)). Some 7.7 million are internally displaced (see figure 3).
World Vision United States in its 90-day response goal, aims to deliver lifesaving assistance for basic needs to some 290,000 refugees in Moldova, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine, aimed at addressing three basic objectives: 1) basic lifesaving needs — in cash and in kind, food, shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) needs; 2) protective environment, focusing on women and children; and 3) access to services, information, education, healthcare and social protection.
Other short-term solutions will be for those countries with excess food stocks, that should be encouraged to release such stocks to the World Food Programme (WFP), and that the stocks are released into the global market place at a pace and rate that can ensure that it contributes to meeting global demand. In the medium and longer term, the international community would do well to examine the global food system and to see where we can improve the role and the number of smallholder producers into the system, and more importantly, examine at a country, local and regional level where these actors can help shorten global food supply chains and place a greater emphasis on more nimble and sustainable food systems taking on a bigger role in the global food system.
The international community and governments must advocate that food systems — be they local, regional or global — not be used as tools in any conflict, as far as is possible. Private businesses and international partners really need to work toward more productive, resource-efficient, diverse and nutritious production systems to ensure that food and nutrition security and distribution and prices are there in the face of rising resource and climate conflict and economic risks. This may include examining food chains around specific commodities: can they be shortened, can they be made to meet local and regional needs first, can they involve greater share of smaller producers, can any added value be acquired locally, can shelf life be extended? These are but some of many potential solutions that may now need to be asked of the global food system as a result of the effects of the current Ukraine conflict.
This undoubtedly is challenging in a global food system where many commodities are traded across the world and subject to a range of stresses and disruptions, including that of conflict and disruption to supply chains. It begs the question, in mitigating these challenges and disruptions to supply, shortages and volatile prices, can the global food system in its current format mitigate and overcome these challenges? Is there a need to look at food systems from a different perspective, from that of local systems, shorter supply chains, regional systems and empower local and regional producers and actors in the food system to evolve food systems that are less prone to such disruptions, which can mitigate (to some degree) the effect of conflict and empower local and small producers to play a bigger role in the overall food system? These indeed are some of the challenges that the Ukraine conflict appears to be bringing to the forefront of the world today. What is the right balance the world needs to reach between the role of global food systems and that of regional and local food systems? Can the world make these adjustments? These are but some of the questions that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is raising.
The World Farmers’ Organization recently released a statement, “It is of vital importance to identify priority actions aimed at protecting farmers’ livelihoods and food production. Unilateral initiatives should be avoided, in favor of a global response (unified) to address the impact on farming business created by the market disruptions. It is absolutely essential to support the farming communities who feed us, by ensuring access to agricultural inputs, natural resources and agricultural infrastructures in the areas impacted by the conflict. There is a strong urgency to encourage the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices by promoting soil health, agricultural innovation and restoration of degraded land. Equally, we need to invest in resilient and conflict-sensitive food systems, which involves the ability to withstand and recover from disruptions so that everyone has access, on an ongoing basis, to an adequate amount of food. Last and most important, farmers are calling for the support of the international community to enable them to work in the fields safely and peacefully.”