by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 29
March 2022
Factcheck
07:15

Ignore the wheat panic: the world still has plenty

The war in Ukraine is unlikely to cause mass starvation
by Peter Franklin
Don’t worry lads, there’s plenty more where this came from (Photo by Pavlo Pakhomenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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.

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.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
35 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
6 months ago

It’s nice to have the sober professional view of the world but that won’t stop the gloom-and-doom sayers (AKA the MSM) from spooking people (and markets) into action.
PS What do I do with all these bags of bread flour that I’ve just taken a second mortgage on?

John Riordan
John Riordan
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

You could always ferment them into ethanol. Given the way fuel prices are going, you’ll probably make a profit. And it turns out to be a bad idea, you could always just drink it.

Last edited 6 months ago by John Riordan
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Send it to that magnificently named Yorkshire power station, DRAX, to be burnt as a bio fuel.
Last year DRAX received an £ 890 million subsidy for burning bio fuel pellets grown and harvested in British Columbia and California.
You should get a good price.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

It is Drax. It is a village nearby

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
6 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I wanted to emphasise it by putting it in bold, but my rinky-dink equipment didn’t run to that, hence capital letters. QED?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Well, if it amuses you….

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
6 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

No, it’s just an unusual name that dates back to Doomsday.

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

My local MP in Dorset is Richard Drax

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
6 months ago
Reply to  Su Mac

Competition for Rishi as richest MP?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Send it in little envelopes to the Kremlin?

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Unfortunately it’s the proper stuff not the ‘Graded Grains’ variety. It’s OK I do occaisionally bake my own and I supose I can invite the family around.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

The “we’re all going to starve” headlines were never about informing people. They were about generating revenue by scaring people into buying newspapers or clicking on news stories. Same as always — news-ertainment

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago

Thanks for this. It’s just what I suspected, that the MSM is fearmongering on this topic of food supply.
We really need to rein in our MSM – it’s whipping up its echo chamber (not the people) to take ridiculous actions – not pursuing herd immunity as callous because the ‘bodies might pile up’; stopping a national referendum on Brexit being enacted; trying to kick a PM out during a war because he went to some work parties.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Agreed. The problem is that most of us are not going to read an article with a headline: “Things going to be much as they are now next year”. Whereas “Catastrophic shortage, many will die” is likely to draw the eye. There is little incentive for superficial MSM to report soberly instead everything is framed in terms of some purported catastrophe. It is up to us to support sober reporting rather than alarmist but too many prefer a bit of drama in their news rather than dull sobriety.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
6 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Well I guess it depends on where you live and how much disposable income you have.
I would be pretty concerned if I was at subsistence level and living in say Egypt, Libya, Chad, Ethiopia, Yemen … this could be a long list.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
6 months ago

It would be a bit ironic if the world ran out of wheat due to the war in Ukraine. Back in the day, the Soviet Union was often having to import food, despite Ukraine being a part of them. Of course it was being run according to socialist principles, so not surprising it wasn’t producing what it was capable of, but just sayin’, the rest of the world somehow got by and even had a bit left over.
Although this does make me think of an article in the Economist some years ago. They suggested the US and even certain western European countries should cut back drastically on agriculture since it wasn’t as profitable an activity as what the workers in that industry could otherwise be doing. They suggested we should just focus on imports from cheaper countries. It seemed crazy enough at the time, but stuff like the Ukraine war just points out the further risks of such a policy. And should peace break out permanently across humanity, not sure how that would stop droughts, floods, hurricanes, plagues of locusts (still a thing), plant diseases, and a host of other things that could strike at the food supply. Redundancy is not only a good idea, but downright essential for something you can’t get by without.

Last edited 6 months ago by Sean Penley
Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
6 months ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

Yes, but the problem is that they consider food to be a commodity with lots of financial ties which has resulted in food of much lesser quality which causes many health issues. It is about time that agriculture should only be approached as a way of keeping us all healthy….. I can always dream…

Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
6 months ago

Sarah Taber is a crop and food safety scientist who founded a caviar company and has studied small acreage farming. She’s not a grain farmer, an expert on grain production, an agricultural economist, a fertilizer producer, a wheat importer or exporter…so, I’m not sure why her interpretation of wheat statistics should anchor this article. What if protracted fighting in Ukraine disrupts the seasonal window to plant their wheat and corn crops? What if the chain reaction of high global natural gas prices reduces the economic viability of producing nitrogen-based fertilizers? What if unaffordable fertilizer means that farmers will opt for a diminished crop yield? Ukraine exported $377 million dollars worth of fertilizer in 2020…what if that product can’t get to market? The U.S. imports approximately 96% of the nation’s potassium fertilizer from Russia…what does that mean if sanctions are put in place?
Egypt is one of the largest importers of wheat in the world, and 80% of its supply is from Russia and Ukraine. Does the author believe that Egypt isn’t panicking right now?

Michael K
Michael K
6 months ago
Reply to  Abe Stamm

What if protracted fighting in Ukraine disrupts the seasonal window to plant their wheat and corn crops? What if the chain reaction of high global natural gas prices reduces the economic viability of producing nitrogen-based fertilizers? What if unaffordable fertilizer means that farmers will opt for a diminished crop yield?

All of that has already happened. Seeds aren’t reaching the farmers in Ukraine. Nitrogen-based fertilizers are produced at a smaller scale, and are exported in smaller amounts, if at all. This plus high diesel prices means that farmes are not planting as much, or are switching to other crops. Which means there is too little animal feed on top. Which in turn will net less natural fertilizer.

The U.S. imports approximately 96% of the nation’s potassium fertilizer from Russia…what does that mean if sanctions are put in place?

It means banana peels will get their own market.

Does the author believe that Egypt isn’t panicking right now?

They’re sh**ing their pants, as they should.

Last edited 6 months ago by Michael K
David George
David George
6 months ago

Good to get some perspective Peter, some sane counter to the panic merchants.
Also Australia is a major wheat grower and exporter and has an all time record harvest this year.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

Also worth noting that there is certainly no shortage of food in the western world (quite likely that there is at least 10% per capita overconsumption – so there’s an immediate saving). Add in massive food waste in the West. Hard to see how we don’t survive.
Of course, in poorer countries it’s not the same.
But there are also plenty of alternatives to wheat.
A period of reduced food consumption in the west with healthier diets and less waste would be no bad thing.

Colin Macdonald
Colin Macdonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

There’s overeating and overheating, most people live in overheated homes and could turn their thermostats down a few notches.

Go Away Please
Go Away Please
6 months ago

It’s possible that wheat exports and wheat production might be a bit more complicated than is suggested in this article,
I read a while ago someone interviewing a wheat farmer in Australia. He was asked about growing more to supply the possible shortfall for next year. He said something like well maybe, although it did depend on the weather. Failed crops and all that meaning it’s a bad idea to have all your wheat in one basket so to speak.
He then said there was a matter of transporting it to the ports, which could be overcome with some issues but he foresaw the biggest issue being the ports themselves. He doubted they could handle the increase in shipping required without a lot of extra capacity which meant serious amounts of investment.
And given we don’t know how long this wheat crisis would last (you know, lifting sanctions one day etc) he doubted any investors would be forthcoming. And even if by some miracle they were it would take more than a year to raise the money, get the planning sorted and build the necessary capacity.
So, as someone else pointed out, the person being interviewed knows a lot about crop and food safety but maybe her knowledge of the world wheat markets is less extensive.
Sorry about my moniker. I wrote it in exasperation some time ago when UnHerd kept badgering me about subscribing or some such. I can’t seem to change it!

Last edited 6 months ago by Go Away Please
Michael K
Michael K
6 months ago
Reply to  Go Away Please

Don’t worry about it, a capable government can easily handle such situations.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
6 months ago

It’s almost like the majority of journos are pushed to sensationalism and tight deadlines – in addition to not being as bright as their forebears – preferring journalism degrees above real life experience.
So they’re incapable both intrinsically and by design of going through more than one or two layers of analysis.
TLDR: Nice article Peter

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
6 months ago

We live in a farming area in the UK and the farmers are saying that if there is going to be a shortage of wheat it will likely be next year not this. Not sure of the reason for that.

Ben Pattinson
Ben Pattinson
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

I think the reason for it being next year is partly to do with Ukraine exports but also due to the cost of fertiliser going from £200 to £1000/tonne. Therefore some can’t afford to put a crop in this year or some are actively not doing so based on the fact that the volatility in the wheat price means that they may end up making a loss on this years crop!! Not a good situation to be in when margins are as slim as they are!!

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
6 months ago
Reply to  Ben Pattinson

Yes, one farmer told me he will not use fertiliser this year with the result that he will only get half the normal yield.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

See note on Australia below

Julian Rigg
Julian Rigg
6 months ago

Look around you! …we eat too much including wheat. It makes us fat and makes many people feel bloated and feeling fat. Comsuming wheat is not good for many people including me. We are not running out of food. The biggest risk to humans is not shortages but the incredible amount of over consuption of bad food including wheat.

Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
6 months ago
Reply to  Julian Rigg

Though you and I (and most UnHerd readers) may be somewhat fat and happy, with fully loaded freezers, refrigerators and pantries, the World Health Organization estimates that 2.3 billion humans (or 30% of the world’s population) are ” food insecure “, which is the popular, sanitized term for people who aren’t certain where their (or their family’s) next meal is coming from…if it’s coming at all. Even in wealthy Western nations, the lines at charitable food banks and the public’s demand for government food assistance are at record levels. The global pandemic caused a spike in world hunger, which isn’t hard to cogitate…so imagine what happens when you now layer on supply chain disruptions, a spike in transportation costs, a significant increase in food inflation (from farm, factory, and fishery production, all the way to in-store purchase), and unmitigated global competition for what will potentially be a dearth in supply of raw food products and grocery store edibles if the doom & gloom prognosticators are even partially correct.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago

I take the point that headlines, as usual, are as sensational as they can be made, and are therefore misleading or exagerrated when they imply 30% of world production may be lost, but I should have thought that even a 7% loss would have a disproportionate effect on world prices, as in all markets, until higher prices result in higher production.

.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
6 months ago

I wonder if the possibility of food/ fertiliser shortages might affect the idea of rewilding? Isabella Tree says in ber book that Britain does not need to grow as much food as it does, and that the world produces more food than it needs. We can therefore put agricultural land back into wilderness without concern. Now the dialogue is about being more self sufficient, a concern of the EEC/EU since its inception. At least we can stop growing edible foods to use as bio fuels!

Lori Wagner
Lori Wagner
6 months ago

Will still raise prices. Cooking oil in Kenya has tripled in price.

Su Mac
Su Mac
6 months ago

I read today that energy /fertiliser inflation means many UK growers of cucumbers, peppers are shuttering their heated greenhouses..