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Food for thought: How Ukraine affects your table

Spring is in the air. Ramadan started the first weekend in April, which is also the month of Easter and Passover. We don’t often stop to think about the bountiful food on our tables and where their core ingredients come from. But this year what should be a season of planting and growth is marred by war and destruction in Ukraine. Rather than planting corn and harvesting wheat, Ukrainian farmers have taken up arms to protect their towns and bury their dead.

Ukrainian fertilizer plants are being bombed by Russians. Frightened and hungry families are either displaced within the country or refugees in Europe. The World Food Program is planning to reach 4.15 million people affected by the war through cash-based transfers as well as in-kind food distributions. 

In cities like Mariupol, which has faced daily bombardment and destruction, getting food to those trapped has been nearly impossible. Citizens have reported going days without food or water. 

The large-scale nightmare of internally displaced Ukrainians and millions of refugees outside the country has placed heavy demands on food agencies and humanitarian organizations. In Brovary, Ukraine, near Kyiv, an entire food warehouse was bombed by the Russians, creating even greater food insecurity.

The food crisis in Ukraine is now a global crisis.

Together, Russia and Ukraine produce nearly one quarter of the world’s wheat and barley. At least 50 countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for 30 percent or more of their wheat supply, and many developing countries in northern Africa, Asia and the near east are heavily dependent on those exports. With disruptions in production, supply and distribution of food from those countries, coupled with U.S. inflation and global supply-chain problems, breadbaskets could be empty in the months ahead.

When supplies are limited, prices rise. According to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the price of wheat increased 80 percent between April 2020 and December 2021. Even before the war, Russia had raised prices on exports of wheat and now faces sanctions that would further drive up prices. With markets closed to Russian goods, there are only a few countries that might be willing to buy Russian wheat including China, which is a major importer of food-related products such as corn, barley and soy.

As with all food crises, less developed nations will feel the heaviest burden. The Black Sea basin is one of the world’s most important areas for grain and agricultural production across the Middle East and North Africa. Morocco is enduring a severe drought in addition to high food prices. Egypt’s food shortages are putting pressure on that government and has led to requests for the IMF to step in.

Tunisia, once the site of the Arab Spring, is deeply in debt, struggling to pay for wheat imports. Lebanon is undergoing political and economic collapse. Syria, still recovering from a deadly war, can barely feed all its people. Food shortages lead to conflicts as we saw with Haiti and Madagascar.

So, what can be done to mitigate the effects of food insecurity?

Addressing climate change remains the most critical long-term solution. Variability in weather greatly affects the ability of farmers to plan crop cycles. In China, floods and temperature fluctuation have interfered with wheat production.

The United Nations, which has been warning for years that the global food supply is being made insecure by climate change, re-issued a dire warning about climate again this week.

According to ReliefWeb, which tracks humanitarian disasters, “even if rising temperatures can be kept within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels (and currently we are on course for 2.7°C) the world can expect a future characterized by worsening global food crises, biodiversity loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and shorter growing seasons. Fresh water will become scarce and disease and malnutrition will rise, contributing to displacement and conflict.”

While nations work to lower emissions and address rising temperatures, a good mid-term solution is to increase support to local farmers around the world.

Many governments and international organizations are working to get fertilizer products to small farmers to increase yields. Global institutions like the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD) are recommending that governments around the world increase the share of public spending in rural areas to support agriculture, improve fertilization and invest in research and technologies to help farmers.

Other organizations such as the United National Development Program (UNDP) are focused on addressing urban food development, food waste and nutrition. Shorter food supply chains might lead to less food waste. Improved transportation and infrastructure can help cities address urban food systems and promote urban agriculture. Nutritional guidelines could balance dietary and food needs.

Most immediately, we need to end the war in Ukraine. Diplomacy is still an option, although the destruction is so far advanced, and the war crimes so brutal, that it will be difficult to reverse the effects of war on land, resources, food, housing and human life.

Food is life. Life is food. We are increasingly dependent upon each other, and how we, collectively, address global food insecurity will matter to each of us.

Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She served as U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration.

Tags Climate change food supply Mariupol russia Russia Russia-Ukraine war Supply chain management ukraine Ukraine

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