Sayed Azam-Ali, OBE
The war in Ukraine has exposed existing fault lines in the global food system which we ignore at our peril. We cannot claim that we were not forewarned but, to date, we have ignored the evidence of vulnerabilities in the global food system at every level, including its fragile supply chains, effects on human health, impacts of climate change and the risks of relying on a few exporting countries for so much of our food.
As well as its human costs and political impacts, the war in Ukraine is disrupting the already vulnerable globalised food system and further exposing its weaknesses in terms of trade, health and productivity. Its consequences are already apparent in terms of the world’s main commodity crops, many of which are grown in the conflict zone. Last year, Russia was the world’s first (39 million tonnes) and Ukraine its fifth (17 million tonnes) largest exporter of wheat. Together, these two countries supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of barley, 15% of maize and 75% of sunflower. In fact, Ukraine and Russia are the two leading producers of sunflower seeds which account for 11.5% of the global vegetable oil market. The impacts of conflict mean that the projected Ukraine wheat harvest is already down by 20-30%, and, as well as cultivation challenges, water distribution and infrastructure systems have been destroyed. This is particularly concerning when one considers that nearly 50 countries depend on Ukraine and Russia for more than 30% of their wheat and 26 countries for over 50%. These impacts of supply shocks and uncertainty are evident in prices. Wheat prices have already increased by 53% this year and will continue to increase as supplies run out and current production fails to meet global demands. Not only is it a case of production but also of transportation – insurers refuse to insure the safe passage of ships carrying grain from the Black Sea region even if they can leave the ports that Russia has blockaded or Ukraine has mined to deter Russian attacks.
In terms of the food system, the war in Ukraine is not just about crop production and supply chains but also about the fertilisers and energy resources needed to support high input agriculture. Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of nitrogen fertiliser, second of potash and third in phosphorous – the three key nutrients required for plant growth. In 2021, 25 countries got more than 30% of their fertilisers from Russia. In terms of energy use, the cultivation, management, harvesting and processing of crops and the production, distribution and application of pesticides and herbicides all depend on fossil fuels – of which Russia is a major exporter. In a very real sense, we now have a Fossil Food system in which food crops depend on fossil fuels at each stage from plough to plate and a few countries dominate both the production of major crops and the resources needed to maximise their productivity.
From this ever-riskier background, it is now clear that the food system on which 7.8 billion people depend is increasingly fragile, risky, unhealthy. Much of this is a result of our dependence on a few staple crops grown in a few exporting countries and their complex supply chains around the world. So, what should we do in the face of these unprecedented challenges? To date, the preferred response of many importing countries and policy makers is to find other sources of the same commodity crops from other exporting countries to replace the wheat and other major staples that were previously provided by Ukraine and Russia. However, alternative sources of grain are proving difficult to find. To protect the food security of their own citizens, 16 countries, including India, have imposed restrictions on wheat exports and other food stuffs. These countries are choosing to prioritise the food security of their own citizens over the potential income from exporting to others. More will follow and those countries unable or unwilling to feed their own people will be the victims, despite often being rich sources of biodiversity and arable land.
If countries can’t import wheat and other commodity crops, can they grow their own? With the disruption caused by the war in Ukraine, Africa now faces a shortage of 30 million metric tons of food, especially of wheat, maize and soybean imported from both countries. In response, the African Development Bank launched a $1.5 billion fund to support the production of 11 million tons of wheat; 18 million tons of maize; 6 million tons of rice and 2.5 million tons of soybean. This fund aims to provide 20 million farmers with certified seeds, fertiliser and extension services. This raises two questions. First, if it was already possible to produce over 37 million tonnes of major staples in Africa, why wasn’t this investment in local capacity already being made by regional and international development agencies? Second, is it wise to replace imports with the same mainstream `Green Revolution’ crops that have not previously been successful in much of Africa’s agricultural areas. Their failure will not just be because they will become increasingly unsuited to the hostile climates that African farmers face now and in the future but also because they are not easily adaptable to the socio-economic and living circumstances of the poor and those without access to the labour, inputs, capital requirements and associated technologies needed for such crops to achieve their yield potential.
Rather than a strategy of replacing like-with-like, following policies that have hitherto failed to provide food security for much of the world, or investing in `silver bullet’ technologies on mainstream crops that require ever greater inputs, the current food crisis provides an urgent wake up call to do things differently. In the case of the Fossil Food system, doubling down on more business-as-usual will become an increasingly bad investment both for humanity and the planet – if we are struggling to secure the food security of 7.8 billion people now, can we be sure that our present model can meet the nutritional demands of 10 billion people by 2050 on a hotter planet without destroying the ecosystems on which we all depend? The current and impending future crises demand nothing less than a transformation of the agrifood system so that it can meet the future needs of society.
In short, we must diversify agriculture from a Fossil Food system into a Future Foods system, towards those forgotten crops that are nutritious, climate resilient and less demanding of natural resources and agronomic inputs. Take crop diversity. Whilst human beings have consumed over 30,000 species of edible plants throughout our history and cultivated at least 7000 of them as crops, just four crop species (wheat, rice, maize and soybean) now provide over 60% of the diets of over 7.8 billion people. We now depend on this handful of elite crops for more than our food. In terms of energy, 10% of world grains are used to make biofuels and 18% of vegetable oils go to biodiesel. Calories diverted by current biofuel production are equivalent to the food needs of 1.9 billion people and biofuel production in America, Brazil and Europe is increasing along with increasing fossil fuel prices. In terms of animal feed, in 2021 China imported 28 million tonnes of maize to feed pigs and more than 40% of the wheat grown in the EU and 33% in the USA was fed to cows By 2030, it is predicted that only 29% of the harvests of 10 major crops (barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar cane and wheat) may be directly consumed in the countries where they are grown, 16% of these crops will be used as livestock feed, the rest will go for biofuels, bioplastics and pharmaceuticals. Only 1% of maize grown on the US is eaten fresh, frozen or canned as sweet corn, the rest is used to make biofuels, animal feed and food additives such as the ubiquitous High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that is used as a sweetener in virtually all processed foods. By 2030, 48 countries will not produce enough calories to feed their own populations. These include many in Sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caribbean. By demanding more uses from the same handful of crops, their failure risks not just our food supplies but also feed and fuel security and the many other industries that depend on them.
Food does not have to come from farms far from where we live but can be produced nearer to home and from species and ingredients that fit our local environments, seasons and cultures. Promoting local produce and `forgotten foods’ can also limit the carbon footprint of our food and help us celebrate diverse cultures, cuisines, and ingredients while also reducing our impact on the environment. We often think of food, nutrition, environment, and climate separately but if we do not care for one, then the others will suffer. The key is to nudge consumers from reliance on heavily processed and uniform convenience foods to a diverse array of nutritious foods that derive from the forgotten crops that have been displaced, stigmatised and marginalised in the march towards uniformity. The Global Manifesto on Forgotten Foods launched in July 2021, calls for a Global Plan of Action in which forgotten foods can become the agents of transformation of the food system. The manifesto emphasises the urgent need for improved knowledge and awareness-raising on forgotten foods – not necessarily new knowledge but a platform through which existing scientific and indigenous knowledge can be made available to end-users. Such a knowledge base will require major investments but it is essential if we are to transition from the current model of the agrifood system to one that is fit for the future.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced behaviour change in a very short time – we have yet to see if the war in Ukraine will accelerate or reverse this change. In response to Covid, individuals and food supply chains had to adapt. For many, food habits changed — more time was available to rediscover and enjoy food and its preparation, supply chains became shorter, and more foods were locally sourced. Was this change an aberration, or can we use the experience to prepare our food system for the future shocks that lie ahead? A global pandemic and a war in Europe should serve as a lesson for how we can consume and enjoy many more local and diverse foods by reducing over-reliance on a small number of staple crops and global food systems that produce identical products transported along vulnerable and crowded supply chains to consumers across the globe. We now have the opportunity to rethink our food system and to decide whether we want one that is more diverse, nutritious and climate-resilient than our current model. The question is whether we have the political and social will to transform our agrifood system into one that is good for humanity and the planet.
This think piece is written as a reflection of a GFAR Talks webinar series. GFAR Talks is a showcase for debate on challenging and provocative topics related to agrifood system transformation, climate change and innovations in agriculture.
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