The war in Ukraine is unlikely to cause mass starvation
The blue-and-gold flag of Ukraine evokes the country’s landscape. The blue stands for the sky and the gold represents a field of ripening wheat. It’s a reminder of Ukraine’s reputation as the bread basket of Europe.
And that prompts a pressing question for the rest of the world: what is this invasion doing to global food supplies? Nothing good, that’s for sure, but some of the figures quoted in the media are downright terrifying.
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According to a report in the New York Times, “Russia and Ukraine together supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat.” A piece in Politico states that “Russia and Ukraine together provide about 30 percent of the world’s wheat.”
So if the fighting in Ukraine — and the sanctions on Russia — interrupts such an important source of supply won’t this result in catastrophic shortages?
No, because percentages quoted don’t apply to global wheat production, but to global wheat exports. As the crop scientist, Sarah Taber, points out in a much-needed tweet thread, this means that the shortfall in supply is much smaller than some headlines might suggest.
For a start, wheat exports haven’t been halted completely — especially not from Russia, which continues to trade with most of the world. Taber puts the combined shortfall from both Ukraine and Russia at 7 million tons. Given that global wheat production last year was 778 million tons, this means that something like 1% of the worldwide supply needs to be replaced, not a quarter or a third.
The fact is that though Ukraine and southern Russia provide ideal growing conditions for wheat and many other crops, just about any country with sufficient land, water and sunshine can produce most of its own food. Which, thankfully, is what we still do.
Both the pandemic and the invasion have taught us that we cannot take global free trade for granted. That doesn’t mean that each country should become totally self-reliant, but when it comes to essential supplies, short-term efficiency must be balanced against long-term security.
The anchor of domestic food production is especially important — and worth safeguarding even in a country like the UK where the supply of land is under pressure from competing demands. It’s unfortunate that our best agricultural land tends to be concentrated in areas of high demand for new housing, but farming is not a waste of space.
In a perfect world, a country like our own would be able to rely on the endless Eurasian steppe for all of our grain supplies. But this is not a perfect world. If depending on potentially hostile or unstable countries for our energy supplies is a bad idea, then doing the same for our food supplies is even worse.