The azure sky and golden fields of wheat depicted in Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue-banded flag represent one of the world’s most important bread baskets. Before the Russian invasion, the country was responsible for 12% of global wheat exports, 16% of global corn exports, and 46% of global sunflower oil production. But that flag, now a symbol of defiance, also represents a cautionary tale about the world’s overreliance on singular sources of vital foods, particularly when it comes to international humanitarian food aid.
The two-month-long conflict has derailed Ukraine’s ability to plant, harvest, and export its major crops, driving higher costs and stoking fears of global food shortages. As the World Food Program’s 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 some 125 million people on the brink of starvation because Ukraine had gone “from the breadbasket of the world to breadlines.”
The ripple effect of the Ukraine crisis on global grocery bills, however, is just a taste of what is to come as climate change disrupts the world’s agricultural areas. As temperatures rise due to increasing greenhouse-gas emissions, so too will the price of food. Humanitarian aid is likely to suffer first, with donors’ funds losing their purchasing power when prices of basic commodities like wheat and oil increase.
“The full impact of climate change will make the Ukraine crisis’s impact on food prices look like kindergarten,” says Enock Chikava, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s interim director for agricultural development. “We are already living in a one-degree warmer world, and we are already seeing more pests, more droughts, more heat. If we continue on this trajectory, to 1.5°C or even 2°C, all hell will break loose.”
But simple solutions, in the form of localized farming adaptations, experts say, can play a role in heading off the worst of the impact of looming global food shortages—if they are implemented ahead of time.
A version of this story first appeared in the Climate is Everything newsletter. To sign up, click here.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recently estimated that the Ukraine crisis would push up to 12 million people into hunger worldwide. This is in part because, as the FAO estimates, one‑third of Ukraine’s crops and agricultural land may not be harvested or cultivated this year, leading to a loss of one fifth of the country’s wheat supply. Future harvests are also in jeopardy because next season’s crop is unlikely to be planted amidst wartime 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 leading producers of the fertilizers that farmers use around the world. Sanctions and conflict-linked shipping restrictions have limited their availability on global markets, and the resulting higher prices will force farmers to make difficult decisions: reduce their use, and risk lower yields, or pay more and charge more—if they can—for their crops. Either way, essentials will likely get more expensive. Some governments may be able to subsidize fertilizers or wheat, or both, to carry their populations through, but others may not be able to, risking starvation.
The impact on the cost of food has been swift. At the end of March, the FAO’s monthly tracking of the price of a basic basket of goods surged to its highest level—a 60% increase over last March’s basket—since the FAO Food Price Index was first published in 1990. Food prices could rise by another 20% in parts of the world that depend on Ukrainian and Russian exports, according to the UN. This in turn translates into higher prices for international food aid, creating an unbearable toll for fragile populations already teetering on the edge of hunger.
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 fire in once-reliable agricultural areas like California and southern Europe, which all could send production numbers tumbling.
In some places, it is already happening. A record-setting heatwave in India has reduced this year’s wheat crop, just as the country was planning an export surge to make up for the Russian and Ukrainian shortfalls. 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 wheat growing regions were hit by major flooding.
Beyond the agricultural impacts of a warming world, catastrophic weather events in key ports ranging from Baltimore to the Black Sea could suddenly stop exports. Food prices will rise, and with them the chance 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 by the double whammy of drought and high prices, reducing both governmental and international aid agencies’ abilities to provide for a famished populace.
For years, countries already dealing with the impacts of climate change on agricultural systems have sought to minimize these risks by sourcing vital supplies abroad. Drought-prone Somalia, for example, imports 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, according to Rein Paulsen, FAO’s director for the Office of Emergencies and Resilience. That strategy is no longer viable— not just because of conflict, but because of how climate change is likely to upend longstanding food supply networks, he says. “One of the things that we’re learning out of the tragedy surrounding the war in Ukraine is just how interconnected and fragile some of our agri-food systems are.”
The Ukraine-related price spikes are just the most recent 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 locust infestation across the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and a pandemic.” The result, he notes, was some of the highest food prices in recorded history—until the Ukraine conflict drove them even higher.
But if local agricultural practices are strengthened, “the world’s food system will be more resilient—not only if there is another crisis in the Black Sea region but in the face of a seemingly endless string of punishing externalities.”
Strengthening that system means rethinking humanitarian aid from the ground up. Literally.
Food imports will always play a role in hunger response, but they should not be the default, says Paulsen of the FAO. In a climate unstable world, countries will need to start developing resilience at a local level by embracing forward-thinking agricultural practices. In some places that could mean sowing locally adapted crop varieties, resistant to drought or flood. Other areas might 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 harm, or unnecessary costs). Meanwhile agricultural scientists will need to focus attention on developing new crops and livestock breeds that can tolerate more heat, or which are more pest resistant.
These kinds of interventions aren’t cheap, but neither is emergency aid. As an example, Paulsen estimates that it would cost $157 a year to help one Afghan family pivot to more climate change-resilient seeds and farming methods. Were that family to buy their staple foods at a market—assuming they had enough cash and the 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.
Food aid at scale is incredibly important, says Paulsen, particularly in lean seasons or for catastrophic events like hurricanes or conflict. “But it’s remarkable how even under challenging circumstances agriculture is still possible at the household level,” he says. “So a focus on local production needs to be part of the answer moving forward.”
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