The Ukraine crisis threatens a sustainable food future

This text was originally published on World Resources Institute. Read it here.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already driven tens of millions of individuals from their homes and left many without water, power and food. As hostilities proceed, the humanitarian and economic consequences will expand far beyond the region, putting potentially tens of millions of individuals around the globe vulnerable to hunger.  

And these aren’t just short-term threats. The selections that farmers and policymakers make over the following few weeks and months can have long-term consequences for the long run of the world’s food systems. The precise responses can keep the world on the right track for a sustainable food future. The fallacious ones will worsen food insecurity and fuel climate change.

Ukrainian refugees escape to the border town of Medyka, Poland. Tens of millions of Ukrainian residents have fled their homes in recent weeks, resulting from the Russian invasion. Photo by Damian Pankowiec/Shutterstock

Emerging food implications of the Ukraine crisis

The Black Sea region is a world breadbasket. The region shifted from being a net importer of grain within the early Nineteen Nineties to a net exporter today. In actual fact, Russia and Ukraine combined produce about 12 percent of all food calories traded globally and account for 29 percent of world wheat exports, 19 percent of maize exports and 78 percent of sunflower oil exports. From 2018 to 2020, Ukraine alone was responsible for producing 50 percent of world sunflower oil and between 10 percent and 15 percent of world wheat, barley and maize.  

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is leading to — or is probably going soon to cause — major impacts on global food systems:

  • Fertilizer prices are prone to go above and beyond current near-record levels resulting from economic sanctions on Russian natural gas exports and the proven fact that Russia is a serious nitrogen fertilizer producer, accountable for nearly a tenth of world production in 2018. 
  • Prices of other agricultural inputs comparable to potash and phosphate may increase, as Russia is a serious producer of those as well.
  • At the identical time, Ukraine’s farmers face the difficult alternative of planting their fields or fleeing from the fighting. For many who stay, farming could also be difficult: Russia is stopping diesel deliveries from arriving in key ports, while Ukraine is prioritizing its fuel for military defense. This puts the Ukrainian government within the hard position of getting to divide scarce resources between immediately defending the country and supporting farmers to plant crops in time for the growing season.
  • An absence of planting and harvesting — combined with the shortcoming to export grains from ports comparable to Odessa — will constrain supplies of wheat, barley and sunflowers globally.
  • The situation is exacerbated by Russia banning exports of some agricultural commodities through the top of 2022 as a response to Western sanctions. As major importers of those foods, the Middle East and North Africa are projected to feel serious effects — although, ultimately, the limited supply will create global impacts.
  • Increased costs and constrained supply are already driving up food prices. The UN Food Price Index hit highs this quarter not seen for the reason that 2008 and 2011 food price spikes. Prices may proceed to extend if other countries place restrictions on exports of their very own crops.
  • And at last, price spikes that make food dearer especially affect the poor. This might end in a growing number of individuals facing hunger, which in turn could drive social unrest in hard-hit countries. We’ve already seen this example play out when the Arab Spring followed record food prices within the Middle East.
sunflower harvesting in Ukraine

Harvesting sunflowers in Kharkiv. Ukraine produces half of the world’s sunflower oil. Photo by Artem Grebenyuk/Shutterstock

Selecting the proper solutions to the Ukraine crisis

The immediate need is relief. Ukrainians need protection, shelter, water, food and access to energy, while those around the globe need reasonably priced food and gasoline. Bioresources could possibly be used for food, for power to fuel heat and electricity, or to switch petroleum for transportation. Decision-makers must make the proper selections — now — to offer each immediate relief and a more prosperous future.

Some responses getting attention right away could actually worsen food insecurity and the world’s ability to satisfy globally agreed climate goals. Private and non-private sector leaders should avoid:

  • Plowing up nature to make up for lost food production. Price increases and provide constraints on grains and vegetable oils may drive deforestation within the tropics and destruction of conserved grasslands within the temperate zone. Plowing up natural ecosystems to create latest crop production areas would release tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Using bioenergy to switch Russian natural gas. Western Europe is prone to search for substitutes for natural gas for warmth and electricity. Bioenergy (the conversion of wood and other plant materials into energy) may be on that list of options. Using waste materials for energy can have economic and climate advantages. Nonetheless, as tons of of scientists and multiple scientific groups have explained, harvesting trees to generate electricity and warmth increases greenhouse gas emissions over a long time or perhaps a century. Typically, half the wood felled makes it into fuel, while the remainder — comparable to roots — is left to decay within the forest or is burned. This process removes carbon-storing trees, while burning wood releases carbon. The result’s an enormous carbon debt that requires a few years of forest regrowth to pay back.
  • Substituting biofuels from food or energy crops for transportation to alleviate price pressures on petroleum. To alleviate price hikes on the gas pump, countries might think that shifting to biofuels is a solution. But doing so would have food security implications and strain a finite natural resource — land. The world is already expanding cropland at record rates to try to satisfy food demands, clearing forests and woody savannas. Biofuels drive this demand for cropland even further, yet produce limited amounts of energy. The USA, for instance, uses 30 percent to 40 percent of its corn supply for ethanol to supply only 5 percent of U.S. transport fuel10 percent of European cereal production (French) is used for fuel. At a time when more people around the globe face hunger, the world’s cropland must be used to grow food — not fuel.

7 ways to enhance food security while curbing climate change

Private and non-private sector leaders can take essential actions to assist stave off a worsening crisis. A few of these actions should be began now, as farmers within the northern hemisphere are making their planting decisions in the approaching days and weeks. Combined, seven approaches could help support each food security and climate goals in response to the Russian invasion.

humanitarian aid in Ukraine 2022

Aid staff in Poznan, Poland organize supplies for Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion. Photo by monitcello/Shutterstock

Within the short-term, decisions over the following few months can address the immediate crisis, comparable to:

1. Support the UN World Food Program’s hunger-relief efforts to handle acute food crises in vulnerable regions.

Doing so helps get immediate aid to those most in need.

2. Keep agricultural markets and trade flows open.

Trade barriers and export restrictions hurt everyone, as seen within the 2007-2008 food crisis when export bans countries enacted to guard their local food supplies led to painful price shocks. Now’s the time to make sure the food supply chain can function by keeping borders open to agricultural trade.

3. Chill out or eliminate biofuel mandates.

Our calculations show that reducing grain used for ethanol production (transportation fuel) in america and Europe by 50 percent this 12 months would compensate for all of the lost exports of Ukrainian wheat, corn, barley and rye. Within the short term, we want these grains to alleviate food shortages.

There are also longer-term considerations. The European Union’s Fit for 55 Initiative, which proposes vast latest incentives for bioenergy from energy crops, could proceed the potential for food vs. fuel conflicts. We estimate the Fit for 55 Initiative could use a projected one-fifth of Europe’s cropland.

At the identical time, European leaders can address transportation fuel requirements by electrifying their transportation systems and using wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal power to offer clean electricity. It’s essential to notice that this shift would liberate petroleum to be utilized in heavy-duty transportation. To cut back demand for heating and electricity, policymakers can improve energy efficiency in homes and incentivize upgrades in industrial equipment. The crisis is an additional call for electricity system modernization, in addition to latest transmission and distribution and a long-term push for green hydrogen. A forthcoming article from WRI energy experts will explore this further.

Over the long term, putting the worldwide food system on a more sustainable pathway able to weathering political and climate shocks would require actions comparable to:

4. Double down on efforts to scale back food loss and waste.

Globally, one-third of all food is lost or wasted between the farm and fork. Reducing this loss and waste effectively means increasing the quantity of food available to consumers.

5. Sustainably close crop yield gaps.

Boosting crop yields on existing land is particularly essential for smallholder farmers in low-income countries, where doing so can result in reduced food insecurity and increased rural incomes. Boosting crop yields also alleviates the necessity to clear forests and other ecosystems to make way for farms. When combined with other policies to guard nature, increasing crop yields can deliver climate and biodiversity advantages.

6. Shift to more sustainable diets.

About one-third of world cropland is used to feed livestock. Shifting high-meat diets in a plant-rich direction could liberate arable land to grow crops for human consumption.

7. Align agriculture subsidies with crops which can be directly consumed by people.

Agriculture subsidies that support biofuel or animal production could possibly be phased down or transferred to crops directly consumed by people.

Stopping a looming food crisis

A looming food crisis is considered one of the devastating effects of this conflict. Now’s the time for decisions that set a course for immediate in addition to long-term food, energy and climate security.  

This text was co-written by Craig Hanson, Janet Ranganathan, Edward Davey, Tim Searchinger and Jillian Holzer


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