Food Crisis Can’t Handle Ukraine War and Climate Change

TThe blue sky and golden wheat fields depicted in the Ukrainian yellow-blue ribbon flag represent one of the most important bread baskets in the world. Prior to the Russian invasion, the country was responsible for 12% of global wheat exports, 16% of global corn exports, and 46% of global sunflower oil production. But the flag, now a symbol of defiance, also represents a cautionary tale about the world’s over-reliance on vital single sources of food, especially when it comes to international humanitarian food aid.

The two-month conflict has thwarted Ukraine’s ability to grow, harvest and export its main crop, driving costs higher and fueling fears of global food shortages. As the executive director of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned the United Nations Security Council on March 29: rising food prices will destroy the ability of humanitarian organizations to feed some 125 million people on the brink of starvation as Ukraine has gone “from the world’s food granary to the bottom line. bread.”

The ripple effect of the Ukraine crisis on the global grocery bill, however, is just a taste of what is to come when climate change disrupts the world’s agricultural areas. As temperatures rise due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, so do food prices. Humanitarian aid is likely to suffer first, with donor funds losing their purchasing power as prices for basic commodities such as wheat and oil rise.

“The full impact of climate change will make the impact of the Ukraine crisis on food prices look like kindergarten,” said Enock Chikava, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation interim director for agricultural development. “We’re already living in a world that’s one degree warmer, and we’re already seeing more pests, more drought, more heat. If we continue this trajectory, up to 1.5°C or even 2°C, hell will break out.”

But simple solutions, in the form of local agricultural adaptation, experts say, could play a role in preventing the worst impacts of looming global food shortages—if implemented early.

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The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that the Ukraine crisis would drive up to 12 million people to starvation worldwide. This is partly because, as the FAO estimates, a third of Ukraine’s crops and agricultural land may not be harvested or cultivated this year, leading to the loss of a fifth of the country’s grain supply. The future harvest was also in jeopardy because the next season’s harvest was impossible to grow in wartime conditions. At the same time, economic sanctions against Russia, the world’s largest wheat producer, are further reducing global supplies.

Meanwhile, Russia and its ally Belarus are the main producers of fertilizers used by farmers around the world. Conflict-related sanctions and shipping restrictions have limited their availability on global markets, and the resulting higher prices will force farmers to make difficult decisions: reduce their use, and risk lower yields, or pay more and charge more—if possible—to plants. Either way, the essentials will likely cost more. Some governments may be able to subsidize fertilizer or wheat, or both, to bring their populations in, but others may not, at the risk of starvation.

The impact on food costs was immediate. In late March, FAO’s monthly tracking of the prices of a basket of basic goods jumped to its highest—up 60% from the basket last March—since the FAO Food Price Index was first published in 1990. Food prices could rise by another 20% in parts of the world that depend on it. Ukrainian and Russian exports, according to the United Nations. This in turn means higher prices for international food aid, creating an unbearable toll for a fragile population already teetering on the brink of starvation.

In addition, the impact of rising global temperatures and their effects can be devastating for economically disadvantaged countries. According to a landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in February, rising temperatures are likely to increase droughts, floods and fires in once-reliable agricultural areas such as California and southern Europe, all of which could drive production down.

In some places, it has already happened. India’s record-breaking heatwave has reduced wheat harvests this year, just as the country is planning a surge in exports to make up for the shortages of Russia and Ukraine. And, as the Associated Press reported, China’s agriculture minister Tang Renjian last month warned that the country’s winter wheat harvest would be poor after wheat-growing areas were hit by heavy flooding.

Despite the agricultural impact of a warming world, catastrophic weather events at major ports from Baltimore to the Black Sea could suddenly halt exports. Food prices will rise, and with it the possibility of internal unrest, as we have seen in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Chronic food insecure areas, such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, will be hit by multiple droughts and high prices, reducing the ability of government and international aid agencies to provide for hungry populations.

For years, countries already dealing with the impacts of climate change on agricultural systems have sought to minimize this risk by sourcing essential supplies abroad. Drought-prone Somalia, for example, imports 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, according to Rein Paulsen, FAO director for the Office of Emergencies and Resilience. That strategy is no longer viable—not just because of the conflict, but because of how climate change is likely to upend long-standing food supply networks, he said. “One of the things we have learned from the tragedy surrounding the war in Ukraine is how interconnected and fragile some of our agri-food systems are.”

The Ukraine-related price spike is just the latest evidence that the global agricultural system is breaking down, said Chikava of the Gates Foundation. “Before Ukraine, global agriculture was already facing accelerating and severe climate change, widespread conflict and mass migration, locust attacks in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and pandemics.” The results, he noted, were some of the highest food prices in history—until the Ukraine conflict pushed them even higher.

But if local farming practices are strengthened, “the world’s food system will be more resilient—not only in the event of another crisis in the Black Sea region but also in the face of a seemingly endless series of external penalties.”

Strengthening that system means rethinking humanitarian assistance from the ground up. Literally.

Food imports will always play a role in tackling hunger, but they should not be the default, said Paulsen of the FAO. In a climate unstable world, countries need to start developing resilience at the local level by embracing forward-thinking agricultural practices. In some places it can mean sowing locally adapted, drought- or flood-resistant crop varieties. Other areas may require precision irrigation systems that minimize water use, or education about the strategic application of fertilizers and pesticides (rather than ad hoc use which can lead to long-term losses, or unnecessary costs). Meanwhile agricultural scientists need to focus on developing new crop and livestock breeds that can tolerate more heat, or that are more resistant to pests.

This kind of intervention is not cheap, but so is emergency assistance. For example, Paulsen estimates that it costs $157 per year to help an Afghan family switch to more climate-resilient seeds and farming methods. If the family bought their staple food at the market—assuming they had enough money and supplies were available—the cost would be quadrupled. And in the case of a massive international response to a threatening famine, as we see it today, that would cost seven to nine times as much.

Large-scale food aid is essential, says Paulsen, especially during a famine or for catastrophic events such as hurricanes or conflict. “But it’s amazing how even in challenging situations farming is still possible at the household level,” he said. “So a focus on local production needs to be part of the answer moving forward.”

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