The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine is hitting the population hard: millions have fled, thousands have died. The consequences have long been felt in other countries as well. Food prices are rising drastically because Ukraine can only supply a fraction of the usual agricultural products.
Russia blocks the ports and thus the export of grain. This affects the main buyers in the Middle East and North Africa. Russia is taking action itself and has confiscated between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of wheat, according to Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mikola Solski. Enough to supply almost six million people for a year.
“Should Russia permanently control the Black Sea coast, it would bring dramatic changes to the food situation in many countries,” says Stefan Tangermann. The agricultural economist was a director at the OECD for a long time and has been a member of the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the United Nations Committee on World Food Security since this year. Around a third of global wheat exports come from Ukraine and Russia, he explains. “If Russia is in sole control, it can use the grain as a political weapon, ramping up and down shipments at will, just as it is already doing with oil and gas.”
It can already be observed today that Egypt’s foreign policy is such that imports are favored, says Tangermann. After all, the country has so far received 70 percent of its wheat supply from Ukraine.
Replacement is needed and available. “Global stocks of grain are at a satisfactory level, so more could come onto the market,” says Tangermann. However, prices have risen significantly, for wheat by around 50 percent compared to the previous year. In addition, trade flows have to be restructured to compensate for the loss on the Black Sea coast. “It is clear that an import from Canada, for example, is more expensive for Egypt than from Ukraine.”
The global food supply is not only coming under pressure from prevented grain exports. There is a risk of losses for future harvests due to a lack of fertilizers. Rising energy costs and sanctions-related declines in deliveries from Belarus and Russia are also leading to drastic inflation. In addition, extreme weather conditions are threatening harvests, drought is raging in East Africa, and millions are at risk of starvation.
In April, the HLPE summarized what needs to be done to avoid acute bottlenecks in this situation. The panel advises helping famine-prone countries with money so they can buy food. Panic buying and excessive storage should be avoided, and a temporary ban on biofuel production from consumable grain should also be considered. There is also hope that China will release supplies. “It is estimated that the country has more than half of the world’s stocks of wheat,” says Tangermann. But because it will probably not offer them, other countries would have to contribute more, including the European Union.
The HLPE has also formulated measures that could stabilize food security in the coming years. It is therefore crucial to make cultivation and nutrition more diverse, the latter preferably with regional products. The countries should coordinate better and exchange information in order to identify bottlenecks at an early stage and avoid speculation. Stricter regulations would also be helpful here, says the committee. It also advises switching to less energy- and fertilizer-intensive agriculture.
“I have a problem with this part of the document,” says Tangermann. It could mean that yields are falling, but it is important now to increase agricultural productivity. “This is not possible without modern technology and synthetic fertilizers.”
The committee names another point of work: to reduce post-harvest losses due to spoilage and pests. According to the World Food Program, in some developing countries up to 40 percent of crops are lost before they can leave farms. According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, countries in sub-Saharan Africa lose 20 million tons of food every year in the weeks after harvest.
Various research projects should contribute to solving the problem. To this end, “Reload” was started in East Africa, jointly by institutions in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Germany. One focus is the storage of grain and vegetables by small producers. “These contribute around 80 percent to the food supply,” says project coordinator Michael Hesse from the University of Kassel.
The scientists found that the drying was often insufficient and thus promoted mould. In the process, toxins are formed, aflatoxins, which are carcinogenic and can even lead to death. In 2004 there were 125 deaths in Kenya. The Reload team set up solar-assisted drying technology in order to be independent of the power grid.
The researchers also developed acoustic monitoring for warehouses: based on the noise pattern, the system recognizes when beetles or rodents have invaded the stock, reports Hesse. “In this way, an infestation is noticed earlier and countermeasures can be taken.”
It is crucial in such research that the results are widely used after the end of the project. That’s not always easy, as Hesse reports. A lack of money, uncooperative administrations and, last but not least, the Covid 19 pandemic have slowed down some initiatives. “Hopefully it will continue now,” he says.