Ukraine crisis: averting a global food catastrophe

Former Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme Ertharin Cousin joins me as co-author of this issue of “Becoming Net Positive”. Ertharin is a distinguished fellow of global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

As the Kremlin continues its brutal assault on Ukraine and millions flee in the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, a global food crisis looms.

 Known as Europe’s breadbasket, Russia and Ukraine provide a quarter of the world’s wheat and much of its corn, sunflower oil and barley, as well as nutrients such as potash and nitrogen for fertiliser used for crops grown elsewhere. While important agricultural goods including seeds and fertilisers are not officially subject to international sanctions, the food value chain is close to collapsing, putting up to 500 million people at risk of “collateral hunger”.

Shipping companies are no longer taking Russian cargos and foreign banks and insurers are reluctant to support traders, for fear of becoming embroiled in future sanctions and public recrimination. Ukrainian ports are closed, and war is disrupting inland trade routes and other essential infrastructure. Now Putin is retaliating against international restrictions with the threat of his own selective export bans. The world faces at least one missed harvest in Ukraine if farmers cannot plant their crops by April. In other countries if producers cannot get the seeds and fertiliser they need, their yields will suffer next season.

These developments are potentially calamitous for a global food system on the brink. Recent poor harvests and pandemic-hit supply chains have diminished the world’s food stocks. The latest IPCCC report shows that climate change is harming global food production and will only worsen. Already, millions of people go to bed hungry and many more unknowingly stock their cupboards through a fragile system of international trade that is not resilient enough to withstand massive global shocks. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is about to send a food shockwave around the world.

Richer countries will feel it in their wallets as prices spike, creating an inflation double-whammy as energy costs simultaneously surge. Poorer nations including those in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East will feel it in their stomachs and on their streets, as already malnourished and impoverished communities struggle to feed their families. Protests have erupted in Iraq. More unrest is on the way.

It is critical that the international community acts to avert the worst of the food crisis that is being exacerbated by events in Ukraine. Closing borders to agricultural exports, as Hungary, Indonesia and others have done fuels price inflation and hurts consumers. While Ukraine’s own export restrictions on food staples are understandable as the government takes the steps it believes are needed to protect and feed a population under attack, we welcome the G7’s commitment to keeping essential supplies moving and implore all leading nations and international institutions to immediately do everything within their power to keep open food and agricultural trade corridors.

 We don’t underestimate this task: it is a difficult balancing act to uphold the necessary wall of economic sanctions now squeezing the Russian regime while ensuring the flow of essential food and agricultural goods needed to prevent a fully-fledged global food disaster, especially when President Putin is threatening to slam the door. In addition, and as highlighted by G7 Agriculture Ministers, we need governments and business to work closely to move crops now in Ukraine into the global market, and to support farmers to get seeds in the ground for this planting season.

 Countries holding the largest grain stocks should be called upon to release them. The IMF, World Bank and big donor countries can also agree on debt relief for food-producing and importing countries, reducing financial pressure and keeping money flowing round the system. EU countries should reduce use of biofuels to free up more corn and vegetable oils to go to human consumption.

 Beyond these short-term measures, there is now an indisputable need to confront the vulnerabilities in our food system, and as with energy, end reliance on Russia.  We have an obligation to use this war to catalyse a more resilient, sustainable, equitable and secure food system that we build without delay.

Today, many leading food and agriculture companies are working with UN agencies like World Food Programme, UNICEF and others to provide humanitarian relief and support Ukrainian agriculture. We need to expand this spirit of public-private collaboration, bringing together government, business, civil society and millions of smallholder farmers in radical new partnerships.

Together we can strive to alleviate hunger and food insecurity in developing economies, spurred by investing in the right infrastructure, innovations and skills. Scaling up our investment in regenerative agriculture can reduce the damage and volatility caused by climate change and nature loss. The creation of a new UN-led Food Systems Stability Board, akin to the Financial Stability Board established after the 2008 financial crisis, would allow us to see and mitigate our greatest systemic food risks.

We can’t erase the horrific acts of violence taking place in Ukraine, and nor can we undo the frightening geo-political shift that has been unleashed by Moscow’s aggression. But we can avoid heaping more suffering, famine and further instability onto the current conflict and refugee crisis. The invasion is exposing the weaknesses in our global order, and we are strongest when we stand together with swift and coordinated action. Limiting access to food is fast becoming a weapon in Putin’s war. Our best response is unity.