The blue sky and golden wheat fields depicted on the blue and yellow striped flag of Ukraine represent one of the world’s most important bread baskets. Before the Russian invasion, the country was responsible for 12% of world wheat exports, 16% of world corn exports, and 46% of world sunflower oil production. But that flag, now a symbol of defiance, also stands as a warning about the world’s overreliance on singular sources of vital food, particularly when it comes to international humanitarian food aid.
The two-month conflict has derailed Ukraine’s ability to plant, harvest and export its main crops, driving up costs and stoking fears of global food shortages. As World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned the United Nations Security Council on March 29: Rising food prices would devastate the humanitarian organization’s ability to feed an estimated 125 million people. on the verge of starvation because Ukraine had gone “from the breadbasket of the world to bread lines.”
However, the ripple effect of the Ukraine crisis on global grocery bills is just a taste of things to come as climate change disrupts the world’s agricultural areas. As temperatures rise due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, so will the price of food. Humanitarian aid is likely to suffer first, as donor funds will lose their purchasing power when the prices of 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 a kindergarten,” says Enock Chikava, acting director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We already live in a world one degree warmer and we are already seeing more pests, more droughts, more heat. If we continue on this trajectory, at 1.5°C or even 2°C, all hell will break loose.”
But simple solutions, in the form of localized agricultural adaptations, experts say, can play a role in staving off the worst of the impact of looming global food shortages, if implemented early.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently estimated that the crisis in Ukraine would push 12 million people into hunger worldwide. This is in part because, as the FAO estimates, a third of Ukraine’s crops and farmland may not be harvested or cultivated this year, leading to the loss of a fifth of the country’s wheat supply. . Future crops are also in jeopardy because next season’s crop is unlikely to be planted amid war conditions. At the same time, economic sanctions on Russia, the world’s largest producer of wheat, have further reduced global supplies.
Meanwhile, Russia and its ally Belarus are the main producers of fertilizer used by farmers around the world. Conflict-related sanctions and shipping restrictions have limited their availability in global markets, and the resulting higher prices will force farmers to make difficult choices: reduce their use and risk reduced yields, or pay more and charge more. , if they can, for their products. crops. Either way, the essentials will likely get more expensive. Some governments may subsidize fertilizer or wheat, or both, to support their populations, but others may not be able to do so, risking starvation.
The impact on the cost of food has been rapid. At the end of March, FAO’s monthly monitoring of the price of a basic basket of goods reached its highest level (a 60% increase from last March’s basket) since the price index was first published. of food from the FAO in 1990. Food prices could rise by another 20% in parts of the world that depend on exports from Ukraine and Russia, according to the UN. This in turn translates into higher prices for international food aid, creating an unbearable cost for fragile populations already teetering on the brink of famine.
Add to this the impacts of rising global temperatures and the effects could be devastating for economically disadvantaged countries. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report released in February, rising temperatures are likely to increase drought, flooding and fires in once-reliable agricultural areas such as California and southern Europe, which could cause production numbers to drop.
In some places, it is already happening. An unprecedented heat wave in India has reduced this year’s wheat harvest, just as the country was planning a surge in exports to make up shortfalls in Russia and Ukraine. And, as the Associated Press reports, China’s Agriculture Minister Tang Renjian warned last month that the country’s winter wheat harvest will be poor after major floods hit wheat-producing regions.
Beyond the agricultural impacts of a warming world, catastrophic weather events in key ports ranging from Baltimore to the Black Sea could bring exports to a sudden stop. Food prices will rise, and with them the possibility of internal unrest, like what we are already seeing in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Chronically food insecure regions, such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, will be hit with a double whammy of drought and high prices, reducing the ability of government and international aid agencies to serve a starving population. .
For years, countries already facing the impacts of climate change on agricultural systems have tried to minimize these risks by sourcing vital supplies from abroad. Drought-prone Somalia, for example, imports 90 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, according to Rein Paulsen, director of FAO’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience. That strategy is no longer viable, not just because of the conflict, but because of the way climate change is likely to disrupt long-standing food supply networks, he says. “One of the things we are learning from the tragedy surrounding the war in Ukraine is how interconnected and fragile some of our agri-food systems are.”
Ukraine-related price spikes are just the latest evidence that the global agricultural system is broken, says Chikava of the Gates Foundation. “Before Ukraine, global agriculture was already dealing with increasingly rapid and severe climate change, widespread conflict and mass migration, a plague of locusts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and a pandemic.” The result, she points out, was some of the highest food prices in recorded history, until the Ukraine conflict pushed them higher still.
But if local farming practices are strengthened, “the global food system will be more resilient, not only if there is another crisis in the Black Sea region, but also in the face of a seemingly endless chain of punitive externalities.”
Strengthening that system means rethinking humanitarian aid from the ground up. Literally.
Food imports will always play a role in the response to hunger, but they should not be the default option, says the FAO’s Paulsen. In a climate-unstable world, countries will need to start building resilience at the local level by adopting forward-thinking farming practices. In some places, that could mean growing locally adapted crop varieties that are resistant to drought or floods. Other areas may require precision irrigation systems that minimize water use, or education on the strategic application of fertilizers and pesticides (rather than ad hoc use that could cause long-term damage or unnecessary cost). Meanwhile, agricultural scientists will need to turn their attention to developing new crops and livestock breeds that can tolerate more heat or are more resistant to pests.
These types of interventions are not cheap, but neither is emergency aid. As an example, Paulsen estimates that it would cost $157 a year to help an Afghan family adopt seeds and farming methods that are more resilient to climate change. If that family bought their staple food at a market, assuming they had enough cash and supplies were available, it would cost four times as much. And in the case of a massive international response to a looming famine, as we are seeing now, it would cost seven to nine times as much.
Large-scale food aid is incredibly important, Paulsen says, particularly in lean seasons or for catastrophic events like hurricanes or conflict. “But it’s remarkable how, even in difficult circumstances, farming is still possible at the household level,” she says. “So a focus on local production needs to be part of the answer going forward.”
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.