Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is further disrupting a global and liberalized food system that was already undermined by COVID and the unfolding climate crisis. As always, when conflict and hunger go hand in hand, the world’s most marginalised and excluded pay the highest price. Investing in climate-resilient food systems with key involvement of smallholder farming is one of the answers to address their plight.
“The Ukraine crisis shows how imperatively we have to transform our global food system to a system that provides good food for all. Currently, we are producing enough to feed the world, yet leave millions on the brink of famine”, says Bram Peters, food system advisor at Cordaid.
Half of Africa’s wheat import comes from Russia and Ukraine
Together, Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the world’s volume of wheat. As they are the cheapest on the market, a lot of it goes to low-income and food-deficit countries. In fact, half of Africa’s wheat import comes from Russia and Ukraine. By March 22, global wheat prices had already gone up by 19% due to the war in Ukraine.
In 2021, Ukraine was the largest single source of food for the UN World Food Programme.
Russia and Ukraine are also major global producers and cheap suppliers of fertilizers and other staple food commodities like maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, and oil.
In short, the world, and specifically the more food insecure part of the world, is highly dependent on two currently warring countries to meet consumption needs. And, even more alarmingly, to address humanitarian needs. In 2021, Ukraine was the largest single source of food for the UN World Food Programme.
Many countries, from East to Western Africa, have already been grappling with soaring international food, fuel, and fertilizer prices. As the war in Ukraine and economic sanctions on Russia are stifling food production and trade, shortages are increasing, and prices are going up further, also because of food speculation.
“Food production is not the biggest issue. There is enough food. The biggest issue is pricing and access.”
“The world was already seriously underinvesting in the Zero Hunger agenda of SDG2. The crisis in Ukraine is only increasing the gap”, says Bram Peters, food system advisor with Cordaid. As harvesting crops during conflict is highly uncertain (the next wheat harvest is due in June/July), FAO expects that these shortfalls will continue to disturb global markets in the coming years.
Achilles’ heel of the global food system
Before going into some of the Ukraine-related consequences, Peters explains how the complexity of today’s global food system is also its Achilles’ heel. “Global food supply chains have become increasingly complex in the decades following World War 2. Food markets are highly integrated with and dependent on other systems like food trading, transport, logistics, and stock markets. And because the agroindustry heavily relies on fossil fuels and on oil prices, any crisis in any of these systems has a knock-on effect. When key players in key markets are in trouble, like we now see with the Ukraine crisis, the effect is even more devastating.”
Even before the Russia Ukraine conflict, food systems and supply chains across the globe were still in tatters after two years of Covid-19 and severe climate change crises. Five weeks into the Ukraine war, disruptions are more severe and food prices are even surpassing levels we saw after the 2008 global financial crisis.
Pricing is the biggest issue
“Global food production has indeed become more difficult. But production is not the biggest issue. There is enough food”, says Peters. “The biggest issue is pricing and access. Food commodities and farming inputs have become too expensive. Farmers face difficulties to farm and poorer consumers can no longer afford nutritious food, especially in low-income countries and food-insecure countries.”
“When food stocks will be depleted, food speculation will have caused more damage, shipments will have become even more expensive, and fertilizers totally unaffordable, that’s when the food crisis will hit us in the stomach.”
Even before the Ukraine crisis, FAO estimated that 45 million people lived on the brink of famine. And in 2020, when COVID only started to kick in, up to 811 million people did not have access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food. The major producers, suppliers, and traders of our global food system don’t really seem to care about them.
Russia and Ukraine are not only the world’s biggest producers of wheat, barley, and sunflower, they were also the cheapest exporters on the market. This made them very attractive to low-income countries. Their supply is now hampered. Meanwhile, food, oil, and shipping prices keep on rising. And droughts in for example Ethiopia and Somalia continue to interfere with farming cycles. “Instead of moving to Zero Hunger there’s only more hunger”, Peters points out.
Promoting local substitutes
The same war that now confronts Europe with its energy dependency on Russia, pushes low-income parts of the globe further down the global hunger index. Take Rwanda, a country that has successfully battled hunger in the past 20 years, with hunger levels that are still ‘serious’ but no longer ‘alarming’.
“64% of wheat and 14% of fertilizers in Rwanda come from Russia”, says Shyaka Revocatus, a Cordaid value chain advisor based in Rwanda. “Wheat is a critical product, used by everyone. And we can’t produce it at scale ourselves, being a small and mountainous country. Our soil is too acidic, and we lack arable land surface. We already see that wheat, but also cooking oil and fertilizers are harder to get by. In the past weeks prices of these commodities have increased significantly. That’s why the government is now promoting locally produced substitutes for wheat, like cassava and sweet potatoes. These are our traditional food stocks. But people have grown used to the taste of bread made of imported wheat”, he continues.
Organic farming and short-term needs
Rwanda also feels the burn of how heavily it depended on Russian fertilizers. “The worrying thing is that we don’t have one local fertilizer production plant. Sourcing our fertilizers from new suppliers could come with prices that are simply not affordable to most farmers”, Revocatus states.
And relying too heavily on organic fertilizers and local smallholder farming does not solve the acute food crisis in the short term. “It doesn’t yield enough on a national scale. You can focus on organic farming only once you have enough to feed the hungry in your country”, according to Revocatus.
Senegal increases its agriculture budget due to the Ukraine crisis
In Senegal, West Africa, the Russia Ukraine war has kick-started similar dynamics. “Prices are exploding. Most importantly the price of bread will be impacted”, says Idrissa Ba, Cordaid’s country lead in Senegal. “Senegal annually imports up to 650 thousand tonnes of wheat, partly from Russian and Ukrainian grain. To address grain and input shortages the government promotes the production and processing of local varieties like maize, millet, and cow bean. The Senegalese government has just increased the agriculture budget by 10 billion CFA to cope with the Ukraine-related food crisis. Cordaid, as part of its wider support for local smallholder farming, is also supporting farmers and bakers in the whole of Senegal, to boost bread made of local varieties of cowpea beans. The taste is different, but you get used to it”, Ba says.
“The biggest barriers of smallholder farmers are lack of power in supply chains and market access, lack of capital and means to diversify their crops, and lack of rural-urban connectivity.”
In Senegal, skyrocketing petrol prices are just as troublesome as supply chain disruptions. “For farmers and others in de local food industry, they are killing”, he adds.
Whatever the outcome of the current Ukraine-Russia negotiations, the conflict has already jeopardised the June and possibly the winter 2022/23 harvesting seasons in the world’s grain barn. It will ripple through food systems for years to come. Food insecure nations are bracing for the future.
“So far, we feel the impact, but were not suffering yet because of Ukraine. In five months, with prices going up further, that will change”, Ba predicts for Senegal. He is echoed by Revocatus in Rwanda: “When food stocks will be depleted, food speculation will have caused more damage, shipments will have become even more expensive, and fertilizers totally unaffordable, that’s when the food crisis will hit us in the stomach.”
Transformation of the global food system is imperative
To better protect hunger-prone countries against the hazards of a highly liberalized and integrated global food system, Bram Peters comes with a succinct but massive ambition: “We need to thoroughly transform it. And given the rapid degradation of our ecosystem, we need to do it fast.”
Transformation of complex systems comes with a myriad of things, but it all starts with the will to do it. “Take the example of how the current government of New Zealand decided to reprioritize child welfare as a core policy goal. Economically, socially, and financially they changed policies and government budgets with a core priority to tackle child poverty. If we, as a global community, want to tackle hunger, and with SDG2 we promised to do that, then Zero Hunger must set in motion tough and radical changes in the way humans produce, process, trade, transport and eat food”, Peters continues.
Without being exhaustive, here are Peters’ top Zero Hunger priorities. “To keep people from starving we must do more to fund the World Food Programme. That’s the short term. Overall, in the longer term, we must make our food system more sustainable and more inclusive. More sustainable means more ecological and climate-friendly. More inclusive means smaller producers, like smallholder farmers all over the world, need to be protected, need to have a bigger say, and need more access to investment capital and to markets. In many ways, smallholder farmers feed communities and keep markets alive in the most food-insecure places of Africa and Asia. Investing in them, will push regional and domestic agri-food markets and increase food sovereignty.”
Smallholder farming, global Zero Hunger backbone
Some people sometimes belittlingly call smallholder farmers ‘small’ farmers. They couldn’t be more wrong. Smallholder farmers are the backbone of the global Zero Hunger campaign.
Worldwide, smallholder farming is by no means a small business. “There are about half a billion smallholder farms in the world and two billion people depend on them”, Peters explains. “These farmers are, out of necessity, extremely efficient in managing their small plots of land. What’s more, environmentally they can perform a lot better than the agro-industrial producers. Even more so, if you consider the odds many of them are dealing with: extreme droughts and floodings, war and armed conflict, acute poverty. Their biggest barriers are lack of power in supply chains and market access, lack of capital and means to diversify their crops, and lack of rural-urban connectivity.”
Taking down these barriers was exactly what Cordaid and others have done in the five-year STARS programme in Rwanda, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.
Protecting domestic consumers and producers
“Social and economic protection of domestic producers and suppliers needs to be more at the core of the World Bank, the IMF, and other key world players”, Peters continues. “Enabling trade is what they do, but the social component of protecting the most vulnerable needs to be more prominent. Free international trade cannot be a license to destroy local markets.”
“For the sake of the Ukrainians, let the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible. But let this war also be a wake-up call for us in Senegal and so many other places. To develop and strengthen our own markets, our farmers, and our food sovereignty.”
National governments have just as much a role to play. “Governments in Africa are key players. Their import and export policies must include social protection of domestic consumers, who can now barely pay for food, and of local farmers. For example, by investing more in local value chains, local smallholder farmers and local and preferably climate-resilient varieties, as we see now in Rwanda and Senegal.”
“Without proper protection mechanisms for domestic consumers and producers”, Peters warns, “our global food system, meant to feed the world, is fuelling a race to the bottom for the world’s most excluded. And with every major hazard, whether it’s COVID or the war we now see in Ukraine, that race is speeding up.”
Make food systems climate-proof
Of all food system hazards, the climate and biodiversity crises are unquestionably the biggest. “It’s monumental”, Peters says. “To start with, our food production and consumption systems must become drastically less livestock- and dairy- and more plant- and insect-based. The footprint of the global bio-industry is disastrous. Subsidized production and trade of chemical fertilizers must go down, and investments in organic inputs needs to go up. And apart from a social justice perspective, giving more prominence and better protection to climate-resilient smallholder farming, as mentioned earlier, is also a significant step forward ecologically.”
Doing all this is not a dream. We have the farmers, the inputs, the tools, and the markets to produce and supply sufficient safe and nutritious food for all. It’s a matter of political will. Of shifting the power. And not yielding to pressure.
“The Ukraine crisis and the ensuing energy and food crises are, for some interest groups, reason enough to try to put a hold on Europe’s ambitious Green Deal and its sustainable Farm-to-Fork strategy. That is extremely short-sighted”, Peters claims. “Making our food system more inclusive and sustainable is the only way ahead. It is the most efficient way to structurally tackle hunger and poverty, and simultaneously tackle the climate crisis, create job opportunities, and take away root causes of social unrest and conflict”, Peters concludes.
‘Let this be a wake-up call’
“Let the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible”, says Idrissa Ba in Senegal. “In the first place for the sake of the Ukrainians. But let this war also be a wake-up call for us in Senegal and so many other places. To develop and strengthen our own markets and invest more in our farmers and our food sovereignty.”
“And to firmly stay connected, on more equal terms, to international trade. Because no one is an island. And nothing is more critical than food. Whether it’s wheat bread, maize bread, millet bread, or cowpea bread”, adds Shyaka Revocatus in Rwanda.
Interviews and article by Frank van Lierde