Culture & Society

Ukraine Conflict Continues To Send Shockwaves Through World Food System

Experts say Russia’s war on Ukrainian agriculture sets the stage for political destabilization and a transformation of global trade patterns.
By Luke Henkhaus, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications June 28, 2022

a photo of a man in olive green clothes standing with his hands on his hips in the middle of a large warehouse full of holes and debris. to the right of him is the burned out husk of a tractor. to the left is a pile of corn scattered across the floor.
Ukrainian farm worker Misha stands near a tractor destroyed by a Russian tank shell on May 14, 2022 in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine.

John Moore/Getty Images

 

With the war in Ukraine decimating that nation’s ability to feed both its own citizens and its global trading partners, Texas A&M experts say the world will be living with the consequences of this disruption in the global food supply for a long time.

Since launching their invasion in late February, Russian forces have continued to target Ukraine’s agricultural sector, attacking farms, damaging infrastructure and stymying food exports by blockading the country’s ports. Almost overnight, a country which last year produced around 13% of global corn exports, more than 8% of wheat exports and nearly half of the world’s sunflower oil exports, was largely cut off from the outside world.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict grinds on, Ukrainians themselves — and those who depend on exports of certain staple foods from that part of the world — are starting to feel the squeeze. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated this kind of “sudden and prolonged” reduction in food shipments resulting from the conflict could plunge more than 10 million additional people into undernourishment in 2022 and 2023.

“Russia is weaponizing food,” said Andrew Natsios, executive professor and director of the Bush School’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs. “This is not an accident.”

Who Is Affected?

According to Agricultural Economics Professor Edwin Price, who leads Texas A&M’s Center on Conflict and Development, the use of hunger as a weapon during wartime is anything but new. And as historical precedent shows, the effects of this tactic on the target country’s population are often devastating.

“That’s a tried-and-true method of warfare — to lay siege to consumer food supplies and to civilian communities in order to put pressure on the leadership to come to terms,” Price said. “Russians themselves were subject to that during World War II. There was massive starvation in Russia due to the siege of Leningrad.”

In this case, the impact has been global, as the sudden kneecapping of such a major producer of agricultural commodities has driven food prices up and created serious food security concerns, particularly in the developing world. Natsios noted that roughly half the wheat distributed by the UN’s World Food Programme, which feeds the world’s poorest populations, normally comes from Ukraine.

a photo of a pile of corn laying on the floor of a partially destroyed warehouse. above the pile, sunlight pours in through two large holes in the brick wall.
Corn lies scattered in a grain warehouse damaged by Russian tanks on May 14, 2022 in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine.

John Moore/Getty Images

Given the circumstances, it’s unlikely that the country will return to its important role in the global food system any time soon, he said: “I think they’ve disrupted the system for years to come. This war is not going to be over in a few months. The Russians are going to try to grind down Ukrainians.”

Outside Ukraine, the nations likely to suffer the most are those where reliance on grain imports is high and incomes are low, said Mark Welch, an agricultural economics professor and extension economist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“It’s creating a lot of stress, it’s adding to food insecurity, and areas where persons have a limited ability to pay for higher food prices are often those very countries that are more dependent on those imports,” Welch said.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Russia remains a leading supplier of fuel and fertilizer — both key components for agriculture whose prices have also risen steeply as many nations cut trade ties with Russia in response to the invasion.

“When we think about the role that Russia plays specifically, and the Black Sea region more generally, it really matters a lot in terms of food supply directly, but also then in the resources that support food production,” Welch said. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine places so much of that at risk.”

Complicating matters further are lingering supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather patterns expected to disrupt agricultural production in many parts of the world.

“When you get all these at the same time, the system begins to break down,” Natsios said, warning that the resulting rise in global food insecurity will lead to significant political destabilization in countries that can no longer adequately feed their populations. He pointed to the revolutions of the Arab Spring during the early 2010s as one recent example of this phenomenon in action.

“The real thing that caused the revolution in Libya that overthrew Gaddafi, the revolutions in Tunisia, in Egypt and in Yemen, were massive food price increases,” Natsios said. “Steep prices, over a short chronology, will lead to political revolutions.”

Within the last decade, Natsios said, Russia itself has taken steps to become more agriculturally self-sufficient, relying far less on foreign imports to feed its own population. And now that the fallout from its invasion has combined with other factors to upend the global food system, Price notes that Russia is well-positioned to turn the resulting chaos to its own political and economic advantage.

“I think we’ll be seeing a total restructuring of world agriculture and patterns of trade,” Price said. “Russia will try to take advantage of this opportunity to become the benefactor for African countries and Southeast Asian countries — any way that they can first endanger the community’s food supply and then find ways to hold that over their head to restore their food supplies.”

What Can Be Done?

As recent examples demonstrate, producers in war-torn countries tend to show a high degree of adaptability, Price said. So while the Russian invasion has made large-scale agriculture largely unfeasible for the time being, Ukrainians can turn to smaller, more localized operations to feed themselves going forward.

a photo of a dog standing in a pile of scattered corn on the floor of a partially destroyed warehouse. immediately behind him is the cab of a white truck with a Ukrainian license plate. further behind him is some rubble and a person's out-of-focus feet.
Corn lies scattered in a grain warehouse in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine. Russian forces had destroyed the warehouse and farm equipment while occupying territory outside of Kharkiv, according to farm workers.

John Moore/Getty Images

“Farmers always want to farm, no matter how bad it is,” he said. “Everybody wants to feed their families and they want to do what they know how to do, so they make adjustments, they try to find ways.

“One of the things we found in Iraq and Afghanistan was that small-scale, labor-intensive enterprises tended to grow up and fill part of the gap. For example, large-scale cattle and sheep enterprises tend to suffer during conflict, but small-scale poultry meat production and egg production often grows and prospers during conflict.”

Similar trends have been observed for crop enterprises, Price said. In Ukraine, the presence of Russian landmines and other ordinance will make many large tracts of farmland unusable until they can be cleared, but the use of greenhouses and similar smaller-scale production techniques may offer Ukrainians some relief.

From a global standpoint, Price said the World Food Programme and other international aid organizations like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation are stepping up to address the immediate food security concerns this conflict has created — helping direct existing food supplies to the affected areas in order to mitigate overall human costs.

In addition, the rise in prices has created significant incentives for agricultural producers around the world to ramp up production of crops like corn and wheat. Across the U.S., Canada and Australia in particular, Price said governments may want to consider putting land that was set aside for conservation back into production temporarily to address this growing demand.

Still, it takes time for crops to be planted, grown and harvested — and there’s no guarantee that increased production efforts will yield the kind of success that producers and consumers are hoping for, Welch said.

“With agricultural products, it’s not just speeding up an assembly line or building another manufacturing facility,” he said. “There are limitations when it comes to agriculture that take more time to bring resources in line.”

In the long term, both Price and Natsios said that what is ultimately needed is more investment in agricultural technology and international development efforts, with a strong focus on fostering agricultural self-sufficiency in developing nations.

“In my opinion, we’ve never really delivered a comprehensive package to assist developing countries in their food supply,” Price said.

Doing that effectively will take a serious commitment of time and resources. But Price and Natsios said it will ultimately reduce conflict, increase the world’s overall food supply, and make these countries far less susceptible to the kinds of shocks that have led to this latest food crisis.

“President Bush increased our agriculture budget and so did President Obama,” Natsios said. “I think we need to do that again. … And I would encourage other nations to do the same thing. … We’ve neglected agriculture for too long — dangerously so.”

Media contact: Luke Henkhaus, luke.henkhaus@tamu.edu

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