An impending wheat crisis could push millions into starvation
You might be forgiven, observing the arrival of Spring, to feel the customary sense of relief and optimism at another winter past, but you would be wrong. The coinciding of the season’s turning with the war in Ukraine heralds a looming disaster for the entire world. Ukrainian farmers obviously have more pressing priorities right now than sowing their fields. And in any case, the Russian blockade and conquest of most of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast will prevent exports of wheat to the countries that rely on them most.
Between them, Russia and Ukraine account for a third of the world’s supply of wheat, but in fragile countries across the Middle East and Africa, where wheat bread is the staple food, the dependency on Ukrainian grain is even higher: Tunisia relies on Ukrainian wheat for half of its bread supply, as does already-collapsing Lebanon. In Yemen, battered by a decade of war and famine, Ukrainian wheat accounts for around a third of the country’s needs.
Egypt’s more than 100 million people rely on Ukrainian wheat for their staple subsidised bread: the Egyptian government has already warned that it will have to raise prices for the first time in decades, in a grim echo of the price rises that foreshadowed the Arab spring over a decade ago. The potential consequences of hunger and social unrest, and perhaps accelerated state collapse and mass migration northwards, will be a major concern for European politicians in the coming year unless the war comes to a swift conclusion.
Even in Europe, governments are scrambling to fill the potential food gap. Hungary and Serbia have already banned the export of wheat, and in an emergency meeting, EU farming ministers proposed urgently increasing the amount of farmland under cultivation to make up for the shortfall of imported Ukrainian grain used as animal feed. In Ireland, the government has proposed nudging farmers into growing native grains like oats, rye and barley on land otherwise given over to pasture to forestall a food shortage. In Scotland, the local branch of the National Farmers Union is proposing to cultivate land currently set aside for environmental schemes to fill the gap (an idea convincingly critiqued by this Scottish cattle farmer).
Complex, fragile international supply chains are nothing new. During his invasion of Greece in 480 BC, the Persian emperor Xerxes I observed from the heights of Abydos on the Hellespont the great convoys of ships carrying grain from what is now southern Ukraine to Athens, to feed a city which could not feed itself. Likewise, Imperial Rome relied on Egypt’s rich supplies of grain to provide the daily dole of bread that kept its population content; it’s strange to think that Rome’s breadbasket cannot now feed itself, and is utterly reliant on Athens’ Black Sea breadbasket to keep its vast population from hunger and revolt.
Can the situation be resolved? Wheat exporters like Canada can boost production, but it’s very late for farmers to buy the seeds and alter their planned planting, and the ban on exports of fertiliser from the world’s two major producers Russia and Belarus will lower the potential yields. With the World Food Programme warning that millions of people are already at the brink of famine as a result of the war, it’s not impossible to imagine that more people will die as a result of the disruption from wheat exports than from the fighting itself. Unless peace comes soon, Ukraine’s bloody spring looks set to gift the world a hungry winter.