When conflict and climate change bite, will high food prices persist?

Food prices around the world have soared to record levels this year as the Russo-Ukrainian war slashed the countries’ main exports of wheat and fertilizers at the same time as droughts, floods and heat triggered by climate change destroy more crops.

Wheat prices hit their 14-year peak in March, and corn prices hit a record high on record, the International Panel of Experts for Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) said in a report released on Friday.

This makes basic necessities more expensive — or harder to find — for families in many countries, especially the poorest.

Climate change, widespread poverty and conflict are now combining to create “endemic and widespread” risks to global food security — meaning higher food prices may be the new normal, unless action is taken to curb the threat, notes IPES.

It suggests not only rapidly reducing emissions to limit climate change but also strategies such as tackling commodity speculation, providing debt relief, reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers, reshaping trade and shoring up national grain reserves.

If these things are ignored, the world will find itself “a sleepwalker towards the catastrophic and systematic food crises of the future,” IPES experts note.

Why are food prices so high today?

Russia and Ukraine supply about 30% of global wheat exports, but that has fallen due to the conflict.

National stockpiles of wheat – much of it eaten in countries where it is grown – remain relatively high, said Brigitte Hugh of the US Center for Climate and Security.

But declining exports from Russia and Ukraine have boosted competition for the remaining grain on global markets, leading to higher costs that are particularly painful for poor, debt-ridden countries that rely heavily on imports.

Nearly 40% of Africa’s wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia, while rising global wheat prices have made bread prices in Lebanon 70% higher, IPES said.

A composite car passes through stalks of tender red winter wheat during harvest at a farm in Dixon, Illinois, USA in July 2013. | REUTERS

But the disruption to wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine is not the main reason for the price hike, which has spilled over into the corn, rice and soybean markets as buyers seek alternative grains.

Driven by the conflict, financial speculators have jumped into trading grain futures. Some have “artificially” raised prices as a way of taking advantage of market uncertainty, G7 agriculture ministers complained.

Since the last food price crises of 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, “governments have failed to curb excessive speculation and ensure transparency of food stocks and commodity markets,” said Jennifer Clapp, a professor specializing in food security at Canada’s University of Waterloo.

The issue “must be addressed urgently” if the world is to ensure more stable food prices in the years to come as climate change, conflict and other threats increase risks, he added.

Can’t more food be grown to increase global supply?

Some wheat-producing countries are already growing more, and India has said it will increase wheat exports to meet demand, although the current heatwave could reduce yields, the London-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit warned.

However, efforts to increase production globally are hampered by the scarcity of chemical fertilizers. Russia and Belarus made up 40% of international potash exports last year and the trade has also been affected by the war.

A farmer waters himself while working in a wheat field in Ludhiana district in Punjab, India, on May 1.  The scorching heatwave has scorched India's fields, reduced yields for its second-largest farmer and dampened expectations of exports the world relies on to alleviate global shortages.  |  BLOOMBERG
A farmer waters himself while working in a wheat field in Ludhiana district in Punjab, India, on May 1. The scorching heatwave has scorched India’s fields, reduced yields for its second-largest farmer and dampened expectations of exports the world relies on to alleviate global shortages. | BLOOMBERG

The impacts of climate change — from droughts and heat waves to floods and new pests — are also making it harder for farmers in many parts of the world to get reliable crops, a problem that is only getting worse as emissions of planetary warming continue to rise.

In addition, the land available to grow more wheat, corn and rice is limited, with expansion of agricultural land — particularly in countries like Brazil — often at the expense of forests which are key to maintaining climate stability.

With a limited supply of land under increasing pressure from those trying to grow food, protect nature, install renewable energy and store carbon, land could be a strategic global asset of the century, said Tim Benton, director of environmental and community program research at think tank Chatham House. .

The desire to control more Ukrainian farmland – and more future global food markets – could even be one of the drivers of the Russian invasion, he said.

What can help keep food prices affordable?

Since most of the world’s grain is used to feed livestock, persuading people to eat less meat and dairy products could dramatically increase grain supplies, said Pierre-Marie Aubert, an agricultural expert at France’s Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

The global cereal shortage in export markets this year is estimated at 20-25 million tonnes – but if Europe alone reduces their consumption of animal products by 10%, they could reduce demand by 18-19 million tonnes, he said.

Increasing grain storage, especially in countries that rely heavily on imports, and helping those countries grow more staple foods domestically—rather than the cash crops for export that often replace staples—could also help, food experts say. .

And globally, growing more crops to reduce dependence on just a few grains, with markets dominated by a small number of exporters, could improve food security.

Policy shifts, such as Africa’s new continental free trade area, could eventually allow some poor countries to reduce their dependence on distant producers and fragile supply chains, said Sithembile Mwamakamba of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN). ).

Additionally, investing in climate-smart agriculture, to protect crops as the planet warms, would help shore up global food supplies, while providing debt relief could give the poorest countries more fiscal space to manage fluctuations in food prices.

What happens if food prices continue to rise?

As food prices soar on world markets, humanitarian agencies struggle to buy grain for starving people in conflict-torn places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and Syria.

The international aid system was already “overwhelmed” by growing needs and inadequate funding before the Russo-Ukrainian war, and now high prices mean less grain can be bought, said Gernot Laganda, head of climate and disaster risk reduction at the UN’s World Food Programme. .

“It’s never been this bad,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He worries that, as climate change adds to existing food security threats, rising prices are “the runaway train you can’t stop.”

Worse, as expensive food threatens to fuel political unrest and drain government funds, it could derail efforts to curb climate change and build resilience to its effects, prompting a vicious cycle of growing poverty, unrest and hunger, he warned.

Benton of Chatham House said the Russo-Ukrainian war could trigger important changes in food prices.

“The end of cheap and highly available food will, for some, be a reality,” he said.

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