Putin’s war in Ukraine contains three lessons for the global food supply


When 26,500 tons of corn set sail from the port of Odessa this week – the first agricultural export from Ukraine since the Russian invasion – many food security experts breathed a sigh of relief. The news, combined with the lower cost of wheat after global prices nearly doubled, has made investors and policymakers question whether the threat of global food shortages is receding.

not exactly. It is too early to be unreservedly optimistic because many of the problems that fueled food inflation even before the invasion of Ukraine remain: energy and agrochemical prices remain high, making it costly to operate automated farms and move food through the supply chain. Hot weather and drought are destroying crops from Waterloo, Canada, to Bangalore and Bordeaux, and climate disruptions are expected to increase in diversity and extremes.

However, it is not too early to appreciate what we have learned over the past five months from one of the most significant food supply disruptions the world has experienced in decades. The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced global food producers, distributors, and relief programs to adapt quickly to overcome shortages—and they did so, in general, with great agility. This response has provided a deeper understanding of how food farmers, investors and policy makers will address future problems.

Here are three key lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian war on how to secure the future of the global food business:

When grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine – which together produce a quarter of the world’s wheat – suddenly dwindled, farmers in major producing countries began to work. Supply shortages and rising wheat prices have encouraged growers of other annual crops like soybeans and corn to focus on—and have grown—wheat, from the American Midwest and Brazil to Australia and Japan, restoring war-wrought reserves.

We have also learned the value of maintaining huge stores of grain from past crops, which have been exploited in nearly every major producing country to fill the immediate void left by Russia and Ukraine. These reserves must now be fully replenished, and in the meantime, we can acknowledge and appreciate the effectiveness of the double whammy strategy of maintaining strong reserves while cultivating new spaces.

The supply of perishable fruits and vegetables is much less flexible.

The past six months have highlighted the differences between the commodity market, which can rely on stockpiled produce, and the fresh food market. Highly nutrient, perishable crops including fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products are more susceptible to climate stresses, require more specific conditions for growth and production, and are difficult to automatically produce and distribute when supply disruptions occur. Long-term storage facilities for fresh foods are energy and resource intensive.

The turmoil in Ukraine reminds us of how important it is for every rich country to expand domestic and regional supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables. In some areas, this may include networks of highly efficient greenhouses and vertical farms that can grow these nutritious foods year-round in facilities protected from environmental hazards. Encouraging new efforts for cell-grown meat — grown in labs — should be an essential part of that plan. These investments will be very costly in the near term but are wiser as the agricultural industry adapts to the realities of climate change.

Those who have the least will suffer the most, and we owe them the support.

Famine is increasing globally, combined with geopolitical and environmental pressures, and disruptions to food production anywhere affect food-insecure countries. 300 million people lack reliable food supplies and 45 million are on the brink of starvation. Famine-stricken countries such as Yemen have suffered most from disruptions to Ukrainian food exports, as well as food insecurity in Egypt, Turkey and Bangladesh, which typically import billions of dollars of Ukrainian wheat annually.

Rich countries must resolve to provide a greater portion of their grain stocks to the most vulnerable populations, while allocating more money for international food aid. In recent months, this money has been so in short supply that the Biden administration has chosen to spend all USAID funding on famine-stricken areas. Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, has just committed another $1.2 billion for famine relief, but that money will quickly run out.

No matter how smart farmers in rich nations are, severe famine will continue to spread and deepen in the coming years due to human conflict and climate change. Food security must become part of all major international trade and economic agreements between the Group of Ten industrialized nations. The focus of this collaborative effort must go beyond emergency aid to include significant investments in a paradigm shift toward sustainable agriculture.

The devastation and destruction caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have yielded important insights into the future of agriculture in a world of increasing environmental and geopolitical instability. Absorbing and acting on these lessons will give us an opportunity to better prepare for the inevitable turmoil in the future.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

If food prices are down, why the hunger crisis?: David Fickling

The Hunger Games in Russia: Elements by Clara Ferreira Marques

Putin’s war must change the way the world’s farms: Editorial

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, and Smarter World.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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