Ukraine’s food shortages require urgent humanitarian action. Efforts to derail the EU’s ambition on sustainable food will reduce yields and make us more vulnerable in the future. Continue reading to find out what we need to do to ensure food security in the Ukraine.
Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is causing huge disruptions for the world economy. Europe has become massively dependent on Russian natural gas and other fossil fuels over the past decades. This is why energy has rightly been at the forefront of the European debate. Yet, another commodity should get our attention when it comes to the war in the Ukraine: food.
Ukrainians, as the ones directly affected by food scarcity due to Putin’s war, need urgent humanitarian action. Conflict directly affects access to food, particularly in the towns besieged by the Russian army. The European Union and the international community, in particular, the World Food Programme and the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), have been trying to protect food security in Ukraine and to ensure that everyone has access to the food they need.
Food scarcity in the Ukraine – these are the concrete humanitarian actions needed:
- First, the EU should increase its humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people to ensure short-term food security in Ukraine and for refugees in the EU. It should also contribute to the FAO rapid response plan for Ukraine. The FAO is seeking US$ 50 million in funding to assist 240,000 vulnerable people living in rural Ukraine. Only 9% (US$4.6 million) has been provided to date. Over three million refugees are already in Europe due to the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Ukraine. There is no time to lose. Europe must act now!
- Likewise, the European Commission and EU Member States should increase their contributions to the World Food Programme by using the solidarity and emergency reserve from the EU budget. This could mean an extra €420 million, representing about one million tonnes of wheat at current export rates and as many loaves of bread baked for people in need.
- The EU must protect food security in countries with high imports of basic food. With the current rise of prices, countries which rely massively on imports of basic food might not be able to finance their imports. This would be a catastrophe for their population. Exporting countries, starting with the EU Member States, must do anything to avoid this situation.
Global food security – what do Ukraine, Russia and Belarus contribute to the global food trade?
But the problem does not stop at the borders of Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Russia are key players in the global food trade. They account for about 30% of the global wheat trade. Ukraine alone supplies 15% of the world’s maize market. Russia, on the other hand, is a major exporter of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and their components. The same goes for Belarus, which exports potash fertilisers used widely in conventional farming.
With the war raging on, most of these exports have now collapsed. It’s led to a sharp increase in food prices and production costs. The situation in agricultural markets is getting even more tense. Even before the invasion, the FAO’s food price index was at its highest level in a decade.
Which countries are dependent on imports from Russia and Ukraine?
Some countries, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, rely heavily on imports from Russia or Ukraine for their national food security. For example, 90% of Egypt’s wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia, notably to bake bread. At the moment, the price of wheat is around 400€ per ton. That’s 100€ per ton more than during the food crisis in 2008.
Countries like Egypt are facing a huge issue of affordability. Put simply, if prices continue to rise they may not be able to pay for the food imports they rely on. This will have direct consequences on food security for their population.
The EU must ensure that the war in Ukraine does not exacerbate food insecurity in these countries.
Food scarcity in the EU – do we have to fear food shortages?
In the European Union, the situation is somewhat different. The EU is a net exporter of agri-food products. This means that the EU exports more food than it imports. The good news is that we do not have to fear food shortages. But Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has already led to a sharp increase in food production costs. As with all types of production, the rise in energy prices is leading to an increase in the price of agricultural fuels.
30% of the EU’s synthetic nitrogen fertilisers (and their ingredients) come from Russia. 27% of the EU’s potash fertilisers come from Belarus. The prices of these are rising swiftly. Livestock farmers are not spared, as the situation is similar for animal feeds.
Rising food production costs and higher world prices could lead to higher prices in our supermarkets. This could be devastating for poor households, especially as energy prices are also set to rise even higher.
Even though we’re unlikely to see food shortages in the EU, the war in the Ukraine will affect our food prices. We will need short-term actions to protect against these effects. But Europe should not leave its long-term vision aside. We need a plan to avoid a similar crisis in the future.
Short-term action to safeguard food security in the EU needs to be two-fold. We need concrete humanitarian actions to help the people in Ukraine. At the same time, we need to strengthen food security in the EU to become more resilient against future crises. Read on for our proposals for EU food security.
A food crisis in Europe – how can we strengthen food security in the EU?
Two years after COVID showed the vulnerability of our global food system, Putin’s war in Ukraine has brought food security in the EU back on the table. Here are our proposals on how to strengthen food security in Europe:
- The EU should do everything to avoid a possible availability crisis. The European Commission should assess all stocks available at EU level and evaluate ways of mobilising them to alleviate problems of availability and affordability, particularly in third countries.
- We need to stop speculation in agricultural commodity markets, to make sure vulnerable countries have easy access to foodstuffs necessary for their population. Market speculation, manipulation and trading in food commodities can artificially inflate wholesale prices and lead to market volatility.
- Certain practices should be prohibited, such as short selling or high frequency trading in food commodities, which can lead to market manipulation, predatory pricing and profit making at the expense of people in need. This should be over. Food needs to go to people first.
- We should no longer produce so much feed for animals. 60% of the EU cereal production is intended for animal feed! Time has come to finally implement an ambitious protein plan, focusing notably on leguminous crops, which can provide home-grown feed and replace or reduce fertiliser use by fixing nitrogen.
- The Commission should put a temporary halt to the use of edible crops for agrofuel production for at least 2 years as soon as possible. In 2021 The EU produced 4950 million litres of bioethanol from crops and 12.330 million litres of biodiesel from vegetable oils. This represents 11 million tonnes of cereals and 8.6 million tonnes of vegetable oils that could be redirected to human and animal consumption. Who can accept that such amounts of edible crops do not go to people in need but instead fuel the cars of a wealthy bunch of few?
- The EU should urgently address food waste, as still 88 million tonnes of food is wasted in the EU each year. This would have an immediate impact on food security!
With all these demands being made, a long-term vision is still necessary to make our global food system sustainable.
The Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy must remain our long-term compass towards food security in the EU
Current practices of conventional agriculture have led us to become dependent on certain critical resources for our food production: fertilisers, pesticides and, animal feed. A large proportion of the crops we grow (60%) are not being grown to feed people, but to feed livestock in Europe. Not to mention our dependence on external markets to sell our exports.
The situation casts a harsh light on the irrationality of this system; while there is a grain scarcity globally due to war in Ukraine, we are feeding our grain to livestock instead. Particularly when other parts of the world face food shortages due to the war in Ukraine.
At the same time, the overuse of synthetic pesticides that support increasingly large monocultures are leading to a mass extinction of insects. We need those insects to pollinate our crops, and a protection of our soils that support our food systems. As these ecosystems further degrade, so do crop yields.
According to the IPCC by 2100, one third of agricultural land could be unfit for cultivation because of environmental degradation. The objectives of reducing the use of synthetic inputs set by the Farm to Fork strategy are therefore particularly relevant for our food security in the immediate future. Science shows that reducing pesticide use in the long-term has no negative impact on yields.
We need the Green Deal for a sustainable future
It is all the more important to remember that the central objective of this strategy and of the Green Deal in general, is to fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. These two phenomena constitute terrible threats to our collective long-term food security.
The IPCC report, released on the very day of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, reminds us that agricultural productivity is decreasing due to multiple environmental degradations. It is also vital to maintain healthy ecosystems. These are essential for the resilience of human communities to environmental shocks. Hence, the fight for food sovereignty is a fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity.
An attack on nature is an attack on food security
We’re now witnessing a coordinated attack by agri-industry against the sustainable food policies in the Green Deal, citing food security concerns. The European Commission has already postponed the nature package as well as the regulation on pesticides. And the French Presidency of the EU recently announced it will suspend the Farm to Fork Strategy.
It is all the more important to remember that the central objective of the Green deal is to fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. These two phenomena constitute terrible threats to our collective long-term food security. Science has proven that the status quo is unfit for purpose, as it sacrifices our medium and long-term food security for short-term gains such as the feeding of livestock and biofuels fermenters. Those who argue otherwise are missing this fundamental point.
We need immediate humanitarian actions to address Ukraine’s food scarcity. At the same time we need to ensure food shortages globally do not impact people, particularly in developing countries. This is not contradictory with the goals of a more sustainable food system under the Green Deal. The attacks against this agenda on the other hand, pose serious threats to our future food security.