World Food Crisis as Ukraine Halts Grain Exports? There’s A Simple Solution (and a Silver Lining)

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Pundits and climate advocates have hailed a “silver lining” to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine: By driving up fuel prices and pointing up the risks inherent in depending on Russian gas and oil, it will speed Europe’s transition to greater energy efficiency and cleaner, greener renewable sources. But there is another opportunity for a green transition, highlighted by war-driven shortages of an even more vital suite of commodities: basic foodstuffs.

 Together, Ukraine and Russia supply about 12 percent of all the food calories traded worldwide, including a third of wheat and 27 percent of barley exports. Ukraine alone provides 15 percent of the world’s corn and half its sunflower oil imports. Most of this trade goes through the Black Sea, now swarming with Russian warships. The U.S. State Department charges (and Russian officials naturally deny) that Russia is blocking Ukrainian ports to cut off grain exports and that it has bombed at least three civilian cargo ships.

Russia is also the world’s largest fertilizer exporter, thanks to its vast gas feedstocks. It recently suspended exports, threatening crops in Brazil, the world’s largest corn exporter, which depends heavily on Russian fertilizer. Even if these exports resume, sanctions and soaring prices may prevent other countries from ramping up crop production and filling the grain deficit. 

This picture will only worsen if combat prevents spring planting in Ukraine or if Russia’s fertilizer cut-off severely reduces Ukrainian crop yields. To ensure against a “humanitarian crisis” at home, the Ukrainian government has announced a ban on exports of wheat, oats, and other staples. All this comes at a time when world food prices were already soaring. 

Drought and other weather woes and pandemic disruptions had already constricted some supplies, and hunger was already rising in some low- and middle-income countries. On March 29 the head of the UN World Food Program, which gets more than half its grain supplies from Ukraine, warned the Security Council that it will have to cut its allotments to the 125 million desperate people it feeds in Yemen and other war-torn and famine-threatened regions. High costs have already reduced Yemen’s allotment by half. 

Analysts shudder at the prospective political consequences. Food insecurity and inflation breed unrest; rapid food-price increases in 2008-9 sparked riots from Haiti to Bangladesh and helped drive the Arab Spring uprisings two years later. Many countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East (where bread is the essential staple) get most—for hard-pressed Lebanon and Egypt, more than 80 percent—of their wheat from the Black Sea breadbasket. 

So where’s the silver lining? The fact is, the world wouldn’t need exports from Russia and Ukraine—or, alternatively, from America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, or any other particular supplier—if much more of the grain and legumes it grows were used to feed people directly, rather than livestock. About a third of all grain and 60 percent of all crop biomass harvested worldwide go to supply feed and bedding for livestock. A third of all cropland is used to grow animal feed; a much larger area, about a quarter of the planet’s land surface, is used as pasture, primarily for cattle. 

This wasteful allocation of resources exposes the world to climate as well as food shocks. Meat production—again, primarily methane-burping, resource-hogging cattle—drives about 14 percent of climate forcing. Add to this the concomitant impacts on water supply, habitats, biodiversity, carbon storage (lost when forests get cleared for pasture and feed crops), and fossil-fuel consumption in mechanized farming and transport and to make fertilizer and pesticides. 

For what benefit? Americans on average consume twice as much protein as they need, more than is good for their bones and kidneys. We and the planet would be healthier if we shifted to plant diets. Habits like eating meat die hard, especially if you’re around the object of fixation all the time. But spend a month in India eating delicious vegetarian food and you may find yourself wondering what the big carnivorous deal was. As climate-friendly sacrifices go, it’s a relatively easy one—surely easier, for many people, than giving up air travel and all the opportunities it opens up.

Governments in this country and in Europe spend large sums to nudge their societies away from fossil fuels. They fund or subsidize everything from clean-energy research and solar and wind generation to transit, bike lanes, and electric-vehicle charging stations, even insulation and thermopane windows. But they make no such effort to promote a food transition matching that energy transition. Instead, they subsidize the livestock and meat industries through marketing support and low grazing fees, and by letting them shift the environmental costs of their products onto the general public. 

Now war-driven grain shortages give enlightened  another reason to sign onto a dietary transition. Global food supplies, equitably distributed (a big if), would be ample, and food insecurity would be but a memory, along with a significant share of the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis, if those who now eat meat switched to plant-based diets. 

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Eric Scigliano has written on varied environmental, cultural and political subjects for many local and national publications. His books include Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, Love War and Circuses (Seeing the Elephant), Michelangelo’s Mountain, Flotsametrics and the Floating World (with Curtis Ebbesmeyer), The Wild Edge, and, newly published, The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon and a Race to Save the Planet.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Bugs. Bugs and more bugs.

    I believe it takes about 10 calories of plants to make 1 calorie of meat. With protein, it is more like 21 to 1. There are numerous varieties of insect larvae that are far more efficient, especially at making proteins.

    So, yes to bugs. Proteins are still important to most of the world, where most people already eat plants directly. Of course it is very possible to get complete proteins by combining plant foods, but even that is not always possible in poorer countries.

    Meat and animal products should go way up in price, and that now looks virtually guaranteed to happen. They should be reserved again for the wealthy, as they have been for most of post-Paleolithic human history. As it should also be with things like jet fuel, allowing the wealthy, as well as high gov’t officials to travel the world and attend important conferences. Thus the rest of us can be instructed on how to best save this planet of ours.

    Pass the army worm larvae, please!

  2. You need to get better informed about how you grow different crops. Plus the cycle of methane. For example: grazing animals are needed, you can not grow the same crop on the same field for several conscutive years. Growing Grass/silage can be very benifical, both for the soil as well as for the climate.
    You need fertilizer from cattle, instead of synthetic ones. Cattle and sheep are also grazing, very benifical for nature.
    Some areas of the world do not have the right soil to grow much but grass/silage. ( parts of Scandinavia).
    Poultry should perhaps be questioned since the eat the same crops as can be fed to humans.
    There is alot more to this. It is not black and white and thankfully more and people are realising this.

    • Nothing important is black and white, but the case against meat production on the current scale is overwhelming. Yes, grazing animals can have local benefits in some landscapes, via spreading nutrients and encouraging grasses over other kinds of plants. But the natural grasslands suitable to grazing and not to other uses cannot support anywhere near the 1.5 billion cattle and hundreds of millions of sheep and goats we now have, not to mention bison, pronghorns, gazelles, and a lot of other critters I’d like to see stick around. And so our industrial beef, like our chicken, depends on grains and that humans can eat–and converts them to meat about ten times less efficiently than chickens do. The mass demand for meat inevitably drives overgrazing and expansion, which leave ruined landscapes in their wake, from razed rainforests to the eroded arroyos I knew in the Southwest. And that’s before you get to the worst impact, methane release.
      I also worked on a cattle ranch for the summer when I was 16, learned to appreciate ranching life and traditions–and got used to eating and cooking chewy range beef. If that were all the beef we ate, we’d eat much less and be in much better shape.

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