The war in Ukraine, food crises and global uncertainties

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Ukraine and Russia are among the largest producers of agricultural food in the world. They supply about one-third of the world wheat production, and an important share of maize and pulses, as well as other products such as oilseeds. The disruption of farming systems in Ukraine, plus problems in trade with Russia, will straightaway be reflected in the market dynamics of important staple foods around the world, and particularly in some regions.

Immediate and longer-term effects

The price of cereal products, including wheat flour and yellow maize, is already rising steadily on global markets. The next scenario could be similar to the one that triggered the Arab Spring uprising in 2010, when failed cereal harvests in Ukraine and Russia proved to be a major socio-economic stressor contributing to regional instability and conflict. North Africa and the Middle East are the regions most dependent on food imports. With the lowest proportion of arable land and water reserves per capita, and the highest rates of population fertility, urbanisation and unemployment, countries in these regions are immensely exposed to food price fluctuations and market uncertainties, while their strategic alternatives are scanty.

In addition, areas in food crisis due to long-standing conflict and droughts, such as the Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel, will also be affected by the ongoing conflict. Humanitarian assistance will face major uncertainties in procuring food for relief efforts, as the entire food supply chain will be deeply shaken. The World Food Programme is already experiencing reduced capacity to purchase oilseed and pulses, which are an integral part of their food supply basket, due to the disruption of  agricultural activity in Ukraine, as well as increased problems in contracting with Russian grain suppliers due to sanctions.

As seen in 2010, the evolving situation could also give rise to further speculation by large traders and powerful market agents, including food companies and powerful states, who are likely to seal their stocks, thus increasing market price fluctuations. However, the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine for food production systems could be long-lasting. While the price of fertilisers is already rising due to rising fuel and gas costs, their supply is likely to be strained by difficulties in obtaining the main ingredients of fertilisers such as potash and phosphate, which are largely produced in Russia and Belarus.

War plus existing vulnerabilities

Beyond the current tragic events, the war in Ukraine could pose serious challenges to dryland regions such as the Maghreb and Mashreq and sub-Saharan Africa, which depend on the global market to meet their consumption needs. Most countries in East Africa, as an example, currently depend on Russia and Ukraine for about 90% of their wheat imports. The PASTRES research project has just released a series of EUI policy papers addressing the inconsistencies in agriculture and food security policies in pastoral regions of the world, including North Africa and the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the increased integration with and dependence on global supply chains exacerbates the effects of shortages caused by agro-climatic and demographic variables. This is a trigger for further economic disasters, migratory pressure and socio-political instability.

But the consequences of disputed food supply chains might also affect Europeans consumers as well as producers, specifically for livestock producers whose feed inputs are often sources from Ukraine and Russia. Reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy should be more consistent in sustaining more local livestock farming systems, also with a view to reversing the abandonment of agricultural lands across Europe.

While until just recently, the globalisation of the food system seemed the inevitable prospect for all, now the debate on food sovereignty is back. Local control of agricultural systems and food supplies is a crucial underpinning for sustainable and reliable food security.


Michele Nori is a tropical agronomist with a PhD in rural sociology, and a Research Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre. He leads the EUI’s activities in the research project on Pastoralism Uncertainty and Resilience (PASTRES), funded by the European Research Council and based at the University of Sussex.