Yellow Card: Global Food Crisis Underscores Need for Systemic Security

By Brigitte Hugh

In January 2022, food prices were already higher than normal. Pandemic-driven supply chain and labor complications combined with intensifying climate hazards had negatively affected global food availability. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, which has drastically reduced grain exports from Europe’s breadbasket, compounding the situation. Among other devastating humanitarian consequences, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to higher global food prices, escalating shipping costs, decreased agricultural output, and limited fertilizer availability, increasing the number of people facing acute food insecurity from 276 million to 323 million. 

Further exacerbating the crisis is a global trade system built to deliver products on an ‘as needed’ basis. Food is moved just as previous stock runs out, which means if one or two deliveries are interrupted, there is no buffer for countries without long-term food stockpiles. This global food crisis highlights the impact converging risks will have on brittle global systems, and should have the same effect as a yellow card in soccer—warning the global community that care should be taken to prevent further harm. 

Conflict in Europe’s Breadbasket

The food crisis, tipped off by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in addition to climate events around the world, only underscores the warnings from climate security experts over the years: Climate change and conflict are inextricably connected. In this case, conflict and climate change mutually reinforce each other and create emergent, unexpected hazards to human safety.

For instance, Somalia is currently dealing with consecutive years of drought and locust plagues—worsened by climate change—in addition to political unrest, conflict over limited resources, and activity of the extremist group, al-Shabab. Given these circumstances, Somalia is unable to absorb the loss of wheat from Ukraine and Russia, which accounts for 90-100% of the country’s wheat imports. As of July 2022, 7 million people, more than 40% of Somalia’s population, are struggling to find food and an estimated 1.4 million children are severely malnourished. The country stands on the precipice of famine. 

Somalia is not alone. Twenty-six least developed countries, where households regularly spend 25 to 50% of their monthly income on food, import between 30 and 100% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Many of these countries, already impacted by the double burden of climate exposure and state fragility, have little capacity to absorb unexpected shocks. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) warned in April that, “Countries ill-prepared to absorb a global food shock are now facing similar conditions to those that triggered the Arab Spring a decade ago.” 

Already, low- and middle-income countries are experiencing protests and unrest from their populations as food and fuel prices increase globally:

  • Ecuador has seen protests, including violent clashes with police, over food and fuel shortages.
  • Panamanians have taken to the streets to protest their general dissatisfaction with the government, sparked by fuel prices doubling.
  • Sporadic protests have taken place in Lebanon over rising food and energy prices.
  • The second day of a general strike to demand salary raises and government action on high food prices saw peaceful protests in Burkina Faso.

Though wheat is perhaps the most significant crop impacted (wheat accounts for a fifth of all food calories consumed globally), it isn’t the only agricultural crop or process disrupted by the Russian invasion. Ukraine is a major exporter of sunflower oil and much of its maize feeds China’s pigs, while Russia and Belarus supply large amounts of the world’s fertilizer. The disruption of these major exports has led to outsized pressure on the global food system.

In 2021, Russia exported nearly 40 million metric tons of fertilizer, and was among the top suppliers of all major fertilizers (nitrogen, ammonia, urea, processed phosphate, and potash), most of which was exported to Brazil and China. Due to increased fuel prices, reduced exports from Russia and Belarus, and export restrictions from China, fertilizer prices have increased 30% globally. For some rural farmers in Africa, the price has increased by as much as five times the norm. 

Rising fertilizer prices eat into farmers’ profit margins, while decreased supply means that global yields of key crops will be significantly reduced. For some subsistence and smallholder farmers who already experience volatile weather shifts and unpredictable growing seasons due to climate change, high fertilizer prices mean that they are no longer able to farm, losing livelihoods.

Converging Climate and Conflict

If Russia and Ukraine were the only states whose food exports were removed from the global market, the food crisis would be dire, but it might have been more manageable if there were increases in production by other regions. However, the changing climate has compounded the problems facing the global food system. 

For example:

  • China experienced record-breaking rain and floods during fall 2021, which delayed planting of the winter wheat crop, and left many fields water-logged, reducing yield.
  • Record-breaking, early spring heatwaves in India scorched crop land, undermining the ability to backstop the loss of Ukrainian and Russian wheat as India halted exports. 
  • Severe drought is affecting key production areas in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. 
  • Uganda, a significant maize producer, is battling a crop-devouring armyworm, which likely migrated north with warmer temperatures. 
  • Summer heatwaves in addition to unprecedented drought across Europe has impacted hydroelectric power and food production.
  • Drought and wildfires in the Great Plains region of the United States are impacting crop growth and yields and limiting grazing land for livestock. 

Current events demonstrate what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June, “Climate is a crisis multiplier.” 

Red Card: Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Global crises provide an opportunity for some actors to act in self-preservation, or in bad faith—actions which qualify for a red card on the global playing field and have an outsized impact on human security. 

For instance, Russia has stolen Ukrainian grain stores and sought to sell them to African countries. For low-income countries whose populations are already suffering from severe hunger, stolen grain is still food, and the most pressing crisis is not a geopolitical struggle, but the very real threat of death by starvation. Russia has also been accused of burning swaths of harvest-ready Ukrainian wheat, removing even more stock from the global food supply. 

On Friday, July 22, the United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal to export Ukrainian grain past Russian blockades in the Black Sea. Less than twenty-four hours later, Russian missiles struck the port in Odessa, undercutting the cautious optimism the agreement first inspired. On August 1, the first Ukrainian grain ship departed Odessa, injecting greater confidence that the agreement might hold. If the uncertainty caused by the July 23 Russia missile strike is overcome in the long term, the export of the 20 million tons of 2021 grain currently stuck in storage could inject the global food market with some much needed relief.

In 2020, Sherri Goodman and Clara Summers warned that climate change could cause Russia to shift its hybrid war tactics from limiting fossil fuel exports to manipulating wheat exports. Russia taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by both climate change and its invasion of Ukraine to increase its wheat production, or stealing wheat from another country, and using its position as a top wheat exporter as a tool of war is not only unsurprising, it is all too predictable. 

Russia is certainly not the first to leverage the need for basic supplies during conflict. Water has been weaponized in conflicts in drier regions such as the Sahel and Iraq. Boko Haram and ISIS have both poisoned local watering holes, and ISIS restricted water to communities downstream when it had control of strategic dams in Iraq. Russia’s behavior today is illuminating for a future where converging crises affect entire global systems. 

Additionally, states seeking to shore up their own resilience in the face of crisis may undermine the resilience of others. For instance, countries with readily available capital could assure food security for their own populations by buying up the limited supply of wheat. Doing so would come at the expense of low- and middle-income countries without the same capacity for action. While this would likely be done out of self-preservation, and not with malicious intent, the effect is still the same: people will starve in least developed countries. 

Regardless of intention, individual state responses to risk in an interconnected global system have global impacts. System resilience is a team effort—one where the goal cannot be scored by just one or two star players. 

Food Crisis: A Yellow Card for Humanity 

The current global food crisis—sparked by COVID-19, climate hazards like heatwaves, droughts, and floods, and the invasion of Ukraine—is a yellow card for the world, warning the global community of what happens when brittle systems are besieged by a series of ecological, climatic, and political events. In order to thrive, not just survive, the global community will need to invest in more resilient systems, built on foresight, cooperation, and concerted climate action. 


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