One thing is certain: if the war in Ukraine continues, the drama is written in advance. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will place the planet “under the specter of shortages” and a “hurricane of famine”, warned UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in mid-May. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, between 8 and 13 million additional people are at risk of suffering from hunger, a scourge that already affects one in ten people in the world. Twenty-six countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia would be particularly vulnerable due to their dependence on Ukrainian and Russian wheat, which accounts for more than 50% of their imports.
In fact, together, Ukraine and Russia account for more than a third of world grain exports for the year. But the Russian invasion came to reshuffle the cards of this vital market. The impact of the fighting – as the harvest approaches – combined with the confiscation of wheat stocks in the Russian-occupied area and the blockade of ports on the Black Sea which until then carried 95% of grain traffic, led to a spike in grain prices, with a jump of more than 20% since the start of the year.
Facing the specter of news “food riots” as the world witnessed in 2008, several European agricultural organizations are calling for a review of the Union’s strategy. “It’s good peasant common sense”summarizes Henri Biès-Péré, vice-president of the FNSEA, the main French agricultural union. “In the context of the current climatic and geopolitical crisis and even though the population will increase from 8 to 10 billion in the middle of the century, reduce cultivated areas by 10%, reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers by 50% by to 2030 at the risk of lowering yields in the name of preserving the environment, as the European Commission proposes with its “green deal”, is an aberration”he warns.
Flight forward ?
“For the proponents of industrial agriculture, the war in Ukraine is only a pretext”, retorts Nicolas Bricas, researcher at CIRAD, the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development. “In Europe, part of the agricultural world is resisting the necessary agroecological transition of the continent when the planet is already in food overproduction and uses more than half of the cereals for animals and agrofuels. A headlong rush that leads into the wall »he warns.
Beyond the controversy, we note that, since 2008, food insecurity and undernourishment have continued to increase while we have never produced so many foodstuffs. “It is that these problems are not mainly related to quantity, but to multiple socio-economic causes”underlines Jean-Marie Séronie, independent agro-economist.
We can cite the deficient agricultural policies of countries which prefer to bet on export crops rather than food crops or which rely on the oil windfall to buy their food abroad; endemic poverty which means that the population does not have access to overpriced imported foodstuffs; the poor organization of world markets; without forgetting the conflicts that cause famines.
“Food is not a commodity like any other”
“The solutions, we know them. Since a long time “, argues Valentin Brochard, food sovereignty advocacy officer at CCFD-Terre solidaire. Along with five other NGOs, the Christian organization presented them in the form of 44 proposals in a report published in May on the agricultural and food issues linked to the war in Ukraine (1).
“In the short term, we must tax speculation, because food is not a commodity like any other, and set up real coordination between rich and poor countries which, paradoxically, does not yet exist. In the long term, it is a question of relocating and diversifying production on a regional scale to reduce the dependence of countries currently subject to the market”argues Valentin Brochard.
This does not prevent trying to settle the Ukrainian drama which only adds to these structural problems. After the 2022 harvest, Putin should have, according to estimates, almost 100 million tons of soft wheat to play off the threat of hunger, a weapon almost as formidable as his army. “It is therefore urgent to unblock this market that neither Europe nor the United States can compensate for”, warns Jean-Marie Seronie. A challenge that falls more to diplomats than farmers.