The war in Ukraine could throw the world into a food shortage

“We are not just losing six million tons of grain” from last year’s harvest in Ukraine, says David Laborde, senior analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, “but potentially 60 million tons. Losing the next harvest will be a critical shortcoming , which no one can remedy. “

And that’s not even the biggest potential problem, he says. Ukraine, Russia and Belarus also export large quantities of nitrogen and potassium chloride fertilizers worldwide.

“The biggest threat facing the food system is the disruption of the fertilizer trade,” Laborde said. “Wheat will have an impact on a few countries. The fertilizer problem could affect any farmer in the world and cause production declines for all foods, not just wheat.”

The fertilizer market was already in turmoil before Russia invaded Ukraine. Exports of Belarusian potash fertilizer were under sanctions after the country’s government forced a Ryanair plane to land last year to arrest a dissident on board. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted global shipping and supply chains. Last year, Hurricane Ida struck two major fertilizer plants along the Gulf Coast in the United States, struggling to regain production capacity while a fire destroyed a plant in North Carolina. Many European producers reduced the production of nitrogen fertilizer after the rise in natural gas prices last year. Countries in Europe, South America and Africa are heavily dependent on imported fertilizers from the Black Sea region.

To make matters worse, global stocks of wheat, corn and soybeans are at their lowest level in more than a decade, Laborde said, as export bans that severely disrupted the market in 2008 began to reappear. Already last autumn, Russia banned the export of fertilizers; China, another major exporter, has done the same. In 2021, China embarked on a major purchase of grain and soybeans to rebuild its own stocks, as well as its pig industry, which lost an estimated 100 million pigs due to an outbreak of swine flu. Earlier this year, China announced that it was expecting the worst wheat harvest in its history, and independent experts confirmed the country’s poor condition. According to Arnaud Petit, CEO of the International Grains Council, which oversees grain trade worldwide, China is also expected to import more grain this year, just to meet demand.

“The grain market is tighter than in 2008 or 2013,” says Mr. Petit. Due to high demand from growing populations and changing diets, “we do not expect any reconstruction in the next five years. So any climate shock or conflict will have an impact.”

All this makes the yield of agriculture all the more important in the rest of the world.

“What we can not afford now is a major drought in Kazakhstan, Europe or Argentina,” Laborde said. “Markets will explode. I do not want to paint a too gloomy picture. If the planet is generous with us this year, we should be fine. But a bad shock right now could bring us to the brink of a major food crisis.”

THE WORLD IN DURATION

Jerry Hatfield has spent the past 30 years studying these events as director of the USDA’s National Agricultural and Environmental Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. America’s most prominent agricultural climatologist, now retired, sees warning signs in several places in the world.

“If we experience a climate shock in any of the world’s bread baskets this year, it’s going to be catastrophic,” he said. Hatfield.

One of these ceilings is in Mr. Hatfields backyard. “Throughout the Midwest, we’re heading into a drought we had in the 1950s, maybe even the 1930s,” Hatfield says. “I’m not talking about the Dust Bowl yet. But that’s not out of the question.”

“I think we’re going to experience real production shocks globally,” he warns. “We have problems with political unrest, weather unrest, fertilizer and fuel supply chain. What else could go wrong?”

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

Vladimir Bubnov runs an old farm near Lviv, and after rescuing family members from the war zone, he prepares to sow. He is in a better position than Jonathan Clibborn; Bubnov sends emails that they have enough material to sow this spring, and as long as the war does not reach them, he feels they should be able to harvest their crops. But it is less optimistic for farmers further east.

“Countries subject to war activities – in my opinion, none of them will be cultivated,” Bubnov writes. And with the current weather situation (considering that most of the area is in the south and southeast), it is still very fast to plant too fast. All this will reduce the total potential grain export capacity, and even if we as a country produce a little less than normal, how will it be shipped? The port infrastructure is being destroyed, and the capacity of the railways is still not enough for large quantities of grain. »

Yet Bubnov, a proud Ukrainian who grew up near Kiev, does everything he can to produce food for his country, just as Clibborn does for his adopted homeland.

Clibborn spoke to people in the eastern part of the country. “The Russians are blowing up the grain silos,” they tell him. »They hit the cold stores. They are even reported to be destroying agricultural equipment. They have a very targeted approach. »

The situation is eerily reminiscent of Holodomor, the artificial famine orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s to crush Ukrainian opposition to agricultural collectivization. Stalin then ordered the Soviet army to deprive the Ukrainian peasants of all their food supplies, even their livestock. It is estimated that 3.9 million people died of starvation.

“The parallel is scary,” sighs Clibborn. “It’s really hard to understand, but that’s what’s happening. He has sent his wife and children to stay with family in Ireland, but worries about his wife’s relatives in the villages of eastern Ukraine.

“I believe in Ukraine,” Clibborn explains. “It is unfortunate what the Russians are doing here, but the defiance and the will of the people is simply incredible. People say that the Ukrainian army has only 200,000 recruited men. But in reality it is an army of 36 million men. Everyone who is still here is doing something on some scale to help defend the country. I’m not a soldier. That’s how we help. We plant the farm so we can feed the people of Ukraine, and then the rest of the world. »

Clibborn pauses for a second, then adds: “You know Putin has done more for Ukraine than any of our presidents. Western Ukraine has never forgotten what the Russians did to these people in Holodomor. The east side could have turned to the Russian “But now there is no longer any doubt. The country is united and will appear as one nation.”

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