by Aris Roussinos
Thursday, 10
March 2022
Explainer
13:36

Ukraine’s bloody spring will gift the world a hungry winter

An impending wheat crisis could push millions into starvation
by Aris Roussinos
Credit: Getty

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.

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Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
5 months ago

Over the last 30 years, the outsourcing of industry and manufacturing to developing countries has shown how fragile the supply chain is when a bad ideology takes hold of people who only have profit in mind. The domino effect does not end here, but continues with the manic approach of a carbon-neutral planet and the belief that green energy will fill the gap previously provided by carbon-based energy. Suddenly, gas supplies from the east, so cheap, are becoming a burden on a nation that has recklessly placed itself at the mercy of a despot who can cut off supplies at any time. To make matters worse, we are now facing food shortages that will be exacerbated by a war that no one wanted to see coming. 30 years of bad policy and poor planning by 1st world nations drunk on ideology can only lead to a very serious rethink by all of us.

Last edited 5 months ago by Raymond Inauen
Sean Meister
Sean Meister
5 months ago

Neo-Liberal globalists have been strong-arming nations for decades to avoid disruption to global trade networks. The simple truth is that they all sold the family silver in return for getting disgustingly rich. A country without food or energy sufficiency is absurdly vulnerable. If the war doesn’t end soon then 2023 is going to be a bad time.

Spencer Andrew
Spencer Andrew
5 months ago

Another great article covering a side-effect of this war that interests me.

You’re doing some excellent work at the moment Aris, thank you

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

It may also be possible for land enrolled in a conservation programme in the States to be freed up temporarily to alleviate the crisis: https://www.agriculture.com/news/business/increase-us-food-production-in-response-to-war-in-ukraine-says-key-senator
This ripple effect on food security must have factored into Putin’s plans for this invasion. It provides significant short- to medium term leverage in negotiations as the West’s overriding interest is going to be to stop this war ASAP before the said indirect consequences of food insecurity/famine set in. Ukraine will come under increasing pressure from Western actors to sign away parts of its territory.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
5 months ago

Turns out there are nasty consequences to signalling that the West is politically unable to sustain a war, and will not invest in its own defence, eh Aris?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
5 months ago

I know more or less nothing on Ukrainian farming, but know a bit about UK farming. Is this article based on research? The wheat crop has not yet been sown, or will not be so, is that a fact? Because it strikes me with modern agriculture machinery it will not take much labour to sow the Ukrainian farmlands. Let us hope the Ukrainian farmers will be there to harvest them though.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

Sounds like another Arab Spring might be on the way. I hope this one ends up better than the last one.

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
5 months ago

Depends on which side the US wants to fund/bomb into dust this time.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
5 months ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Only Putin does that.

james curtis
james curtis
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

The USA is expert in that area, 2 Japanese cities were vaporised with atomic bombs but another 67 were incinerated by dropping up to a quarter of a million Petro. jelly bombs on them in each raid. Vietnam (French Indo China) they carpet bombed right across into Laos. Iraq 2, “we will bomb them back into the stone age”, with Shock and Awe. Libya, Hillary said “we came, we saw, he died”. Afghanistan, no government connection to Bin Ladin, but they had t bomb someone, until Macron called for help with his re-election, that’s why Biden got out so quick, bigger fish to fry.

Last edited 5 months ago by james curtis
JP Martin
JP Martin
5 months ago

“In Yemen, battered by a decade of war and famine, Ukrainian wheat accounts for around a third of the country’s needs”
In Yemen, most of the arable land and water is devoted to the cultivation of khat.

james curtis
james curtis
5 months ago

For over 20 years, outspoken politicians in Europe and America have been warning about the expansion of NATO, some questioning whether NATO should still exist. France has unfinished business with Russia, so in expanding it’s new empire up to the Russian Border, it took NATO with it. Russia has complained continually about this and has only received threats in return. The poor Ukrainians die, millions will starve, the whole of Europe could go into recession, for the ambition of a few.