The first grain shipments from Ukraine are now reaching their markets thanks to the agreement the United Nations and Turkey brokered. But control over food supplies has been confirmed as a geo-political tool of great weight.
This mirrors the earlier demonstration of how control over energy sources provides critical leverage – first evident with the OPEC oil price hike in the 1970s and more visible today with Europe’s reliance on buying energy from Russia. The COVID pandemic showed all countries around the world the risks of not having their own essential food, medical and vaccine production or being unable to source their needs from a reliable trading partner. “Strategic autonomy” has become the mantra of the day. But countries or groups of allied countries face very different options when putting strategic autonomy into practice, especially as concerns food.
Some regions are blessed by geography with rich, deep fertile soils and a gentle climate. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, extensive plains of fertile black soils north of the Black Sea have enabled vast mechanized farms to generate significant surpluses of wheat, barley, sunflower and maize. Yet other parts of the world face much harsher conditions due to thin, infertile soils, uncertain rainfall and, low investment in farming. A heavily populated rural sector needs to eat much of what is produced, leaving little for feeding the cities, let alone export a surplus.
High urban growth, low farm productivity, growing climate impacts, and limited investment in agriculture and food systems help account for Africa’s growing food deficit, which has increased from 10% of food needs in 1970 to 20-25% today. Overall, the latest data show that more than 750 million people live in countries that import between 50-100% of their cereal requirements from Ukraine and Russia. Of these, 14 of the most vulnerable are in Africa. Taking Egypt as an example, the limited fertile land along the River Nile is used intensively to grow high-value fruit and vegetables, sold abroad and, in return, grain is imported. In normal years, this calculation works well. But now, because almost all of the country’s wheat requirements come from the Black Sea region, and the price of grain has increased, the country finds itself in profound difficulty.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the vulnerability of countries relying not only on food and energy imports, but also on buying their fertilizers from the other side of the world. As we saw in 2008-10, globalization seems like an excellent idea to optimize assets until suddenly it fails to deliver because shortages of a key commodity make the well-oiled wheels of global trade seize up. What seemed like the wise choice leaves a country’s urban population vulnerable to rapid increases in basic food prices. In 2007-08, even those food deficit countries with substantial financial reserves found their stores of wealth could not buy them the food they needed.
Ukraine was one major destination for land investments from governments and companies based in Europe, North America, and the Gulf. In some cases, these investments have been a success. Elsewhere, such as in many parts of Africa, these large-scale land acquisitions have not worked well due to the very different societies and ecologies chosen for investment and conflicting interests on the ground between investors and local people, who have seen their land taken away.
This time , food prices continue to soar with no end in sight to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As a result, the Global Crisis Response Group and other bodies have proposed several measures, some short-term and others with a longer time horizon. These include:
Better understanding of current food reserves and real-time information on markets.
After the financial crisis of 2007-8, the G20 established the Agricultural Markets Information System and a mechanism to predict harvest size through satellite observation. These are meant to help with transparency regarding food stocks worldwide, in both public and private hands and thus dampen speculation. But there are limits to knowledge of either public or private stock holdings. For example, few people knew till now that China had such massive grain stocks, equal to 50% of all reserves worldwide. And there is little certainty about the scale of private reserves in the hands of the major grain traders, such as Dreyfus, Cargill, Bunge, and ADM. As a result, financial speculation on international and domestic markets is likely to play a role in price variability as it had in 2007-2008.
Integration of livestock into landscapes and farming systems.
Specialization has led to animals being separated from cropping in too many farming areas, and the natural complementarities between livestock and crops have eroded. Yet animals and crops go together well, whether it is animals foraging from stubble, oxen used for ploughing, or animal wastes providing excellent nutrients for soils. Cutting back on intensive livestock production, which rely heavily on cereals for feed, would also free up grain stocks for human use.
Invest in growing plant proteins for more resilient farming systems.
The need to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming can be helped by seeding more croplands with nitrogenous fixing plants, such as lentils, peas and beans. They fit well within mixed farming systems, offer valuable stover for animals, and enrich soils as they grow. They also provide cheap proteins for improving and better balancing human diets.
Invest more in the agri-food sector.
Under the Maputo and Malabo declarations of the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), African governments signed up to invest 10% of government expenditure in food and agriculture. Yet, a review in 2018 showed that less than half of 54 African countries had matched their words with resources. And the COVID pandemic has tightened public funding further. However, CAADP has helped many governments design national agricultural investment strategies and follow a food systems approach that needs further strengthening.
Support more production of local food crops, such as millet, sorghum, fonio and teff.
There are numerous “neglected crops” in Africa, which could help feed cities if there was greater research to improve yields, and market chains. Often these crops are much better suited to local ecological conditions than rice and wheat, as well as being more nutritious.
Moderate use of grain for biofuel production.
Turning maize into biofuels has been promoted to cut carbon emissions. This policy has principally worked to keep crop prices high for US farmers, where 30-40% of maize goes into biofuel production. While we wait for much more efficient biofuels to become available, we should limit use of maize for biofuels to avoid the harsh trade-offs with food security.
Expand social protection.
Most countries now have systems for support to the poorest members of society, in the form of safety nets either in cash or kind. Now is the time to ramp up income flows for these groups, and ensure they can meet basic food needs through national or international funding sources.
Invest in organic fertilizer production.
Chemical fertilizer prices rose rapidly before the war started, driven by rising gas prices, and now stand at 2-3 times their 2020 levels. There are massive differences in levels of fertilizer use per hectare between China’s average of 350kg/ha and Africa’s 25kg/ha. More efficient use of fertilizers and manure can certainly be improved at the top-end of the distribution, to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and run-off into water bodies. Additionally, production and distribution of organic fertilizers need far greater attention, given they are far better in carbon mitigation than mineral ones. Most of all, African farmers need reliable supplies at the right time and in the right quantity for them to manage crop growth.
A range of initiatives have been launched to spur food production in Africa, such as the African Development Bank’s Emergency Food Production Facility, the Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission (FARM) led by Senegal and France; the G7 + World Bank Global Alliance for Food Security GAFS; and work by the UN Global Crisis Response Group. At the same time, work is going into resilience building at local level, such as through the Great Green Wall and other local adaptation programs. But all these efforts must ensure they add to countries’ existing plans, rather than acting as a distraction.
While all of these efforts should help expand production in the medium to longer term, in the short term, hope rests on targeted emergency food aid and restarting the cereal shipments. Even if Ukraine manages to get its grain harvest shipped out successfully, African countries should seize this moment of crisis to rebuild sustainable systems of food and agriculture which deliver for local producers and consumers. Outsourcing grain production to a few countries far away creates acute vulnerabilities in times of shock and crisis. With many countries facing unprecedented droughts and climate change, it looks as though such shocks are here to stay.