Russia’s attack on Ukraine has highlighted the growing need for food system change. Over the past four weeks, the war has cut off large portions of the world from Ukrainian and Russian wheat and corn. Wheat prices have since climbed to an all-time high, and livestock producers—who rely on these crops to feed their animals—are contributing to food insecurity by competing for supplies needed for human consumption.
The lack of access to affordable wheat and corn exacerbates food insecurity in many countries in the global south that depend on grain imports to feed their populations. If the war continues, it could send us spiraling into a global food crisis, prompting experts to call for raising fewer animals and growing more crops locally.
On Friday, March 18, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany published an open letter signed by 400 experts, urging the EU to accelerate the shift towards more plant-based diets, combat food waste in the region, and reduce its dependency on nitrogen fertilizers and natural gas from Russia.
“Eating more plants instead of meat could make more food available to the world,” said co-author Marco Springmann from Oxford University. “We can and should react to the short-term crisis in ways that are also suitable to tackle long-term crises of the world food system.”
Wheat supply disruptions
Because of its fertile farmlands, the Black Sea region is sometimes referred to as the world’s “breadbasket.” Ukraine produces large quantities of wheat, barley, and corn, and Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter. Together the two countries account for almost one-third of the global wheat export market.
With its agricultural sector facing collapse due to the war, Ukraine has banned the export of wheat and other food staples. If the war continues to disrupt Ukraine’s agricultural sector, over 10 million tonnes of wheat could be lost over the following weeks. Russia also has restricted grain exports.
Since only three grains—wheat, rice, and corn—account for more than 40 percent of global calories, the current disruptions pose a severe threat to food insecurity. Following Russia’s attack, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged policymakers to prevent a “hurricane of hunger” and referred to the war as “an assault on the world’s most vulnerable people and countries.”
“It’s not so much that there is no grain anymore, but the prediction is that there will be less grain in the future, so prices go up, creating food insecurity for low-income people, especially in the global south,” says Frank Mechielsen, Head of Feedback EU, a nonprofit promoting food system change.
Countries in the global south especially affected
Worldwide, companies and consumers are affected by wheat prices reaching an all-time high. Prices for corn, soybeans, and vegetable oils are also rising. Soaring livestock feed costs have prompted buyers to consider feeding animals broken rice instead of wheat and corn. Rice typically trades at a premium to wheat, but the price of wheat has increased by 33 percent over the past month, resulting in wheat becoming more expensive than some lower grades of rice.
Rising grain prices threaten food security in several countries dependent on wheat and rice to meet local caloric needs. Many countries in the Middle East and Africa are dependent on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, including Nigeria, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer. Livestock producers turning to rice could further drive prices, exacerbating food security concerns in Asian and African countries.
The situation is especially dire in countries reliant on assistance from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Before the war, Ukraine was the program’s top supplier of food commodities. Yemen—a country where 17.4 million people are already severely food insecure—imported around 40 percent of its grains from Ukraine.
The ongoing supply disruptions prompted WFP to warn that 2022 could be “a year of catastrophic hunger,” with 44 million people in 38 countries threatened by famine.
Food and calories are unevenly distributed
The global food system already produces enough to sustain more than 10 billion people, but world hunger remains a problem due to inequality and poverty. Many crops grown worldwide are used to feed animals, not humans.
Meat companies often portray animal protein as a crucial ingredient to feed the global population, but animal products are some of the most land-intensive foods in existence. Sustainability nonprofits GRAIN and IATP estimate that for every 100 calories fed to animals as cereals, only 17 to 30 calories end up in the human food chain as meat.
According to a study about food security, livestock producers used 61 percent of global corn and 20 percent of wheat between 2016 and 2018. In addition to grain, livestock farmers feed around 80 percent of global soy to farmed animals, another crop that humans could eat directly.
Raising animals for food takes up 83 percent of the world’s farmland but accounts for only 18 percent of global calories. Tyson Foods, one of the world’s biggest meat companies, uses an area almost twice the size of New Jersey to grow corn and soybeans for the 2 billion animals the company processes in the U.S. every year.
Because of the sector’s massive land use, livestock production is a key driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss. The resource-intensive calories produced by meat and dairy companies predominately feed the citizens of wealthy nations where meat consumption is high.
According to Mechielsen, industrial livestock production in Europe imports a lot of grain and soy for animal feed. Countries with large-scale industrial animal production, such as the Netherlands, are major meat and dairy exporters but don’t prioritize local food sovereignty based upon the principles of agroecology.
“We can grow a lot in Holland,” Mechielsen says. “Why should we import a lot of feed, export meat and dairy, and at the same time import wheat from Ukraine for human consumption? It’s a very strange model, we need a transformation of our food system.”
Calls for ‘food over feed’
The EU expects no immediate threat to its food supply as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine because the region is a major producer of cereals. EU livestock producers, however, have voiced concerns over soaring grain prices because the sector relies on crops from Ukraine to feed its livestock population and on fertilizers from Russia to grow feed crops locally.
Some EU member states recently suggested using fallow land for growing feed crops to offset shortages, including areas set aside for ecological purposes such as improving biodiversity. A suggestion to halt the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, which aims to build a sustainable food supply system in the region, prompted 85 NGOs to call on the EU to respond to the ongoing crisis without undermining the European Green Deal.
Before a meeting with the G7 countries’ agriculture minister earlier this month, seven German environmental associations, including Germanwatch and Greenpeace, urged decision-makers to support countries in the global south by reserving grains for food production instead of feed and fuel. The organizations also pointed out that 40 percent of global grain is fed to animals and suggest using these crops for human consumption to address exports losses from Ukraine and Russia.
“The EU and the G7 need to commit to compensating for the shortages experienced by the UN World Food Programme and ensure food supply in countries that depend on imports in the short term,” said Germanwatch Policy Director Christoph Bals.
This week, Environmental Action Germany called for the number of animals farmed intensively in the country to be reduced by one-third to compensate for grain and oil shortages. “The war in Ukraine clearly shows how crisis-prone industrial agriculture is,” said Federal Chairman Sascha Müller-Kraenner. “If we want affordable food in the long term, we need to become less dependent on imports, which are becoming ever more expensive.”
Mechielsen says governments need to ensure that food systems are more plant-based, sustainable, and locally based. He calls on policymakers to promote more sustainable plant-based diets and reduce industrial livestock production and Europe’s dependency on animal proteins to address the current crisis.
“We have to produce more plant-based proteins in Europe for human consumption,” Mechielsen says, pointing out that less than 2 percent of arable land in the EU is used to grow protein-rich crops. “Even if we wanted to transition to a more plant-based diet, we currently don’t have the capacity in Europe.”
Caroline is a journalist and staff writer at Sentient Media focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.