East Midlands

On the brink: how war is taking the global food system to breaking point

The war in Ukraine has exposed the fragility of our world’s economy and its supply chains. As two of the largest grain producers in the world, Russia’s invasion threatens to topple the world food market and trigger a devastating famine.

With rising inflation and energy prices going through the roof- stagnant wages and lowered living standards- things are trending downward. Week after week, day after day, we hear of the worsening situation in some way or another; if it’s not climate change, the looming scepter of natural disasters behind our comprehension, then it’s the war, or the increasing poverty sweeping through the world.

The fuel crisis has been upon us for months, existing even before intelligence reports suggested a Russian invasion would take place. Perhaps it had different causes, but, even then, it unearthed a fragility in our supply chains. It signaled how delicate our existence is, and how it won’t take much for it all to come crashing down.

The butterfly effect

It was a similar kind of fragility that unearthed the frailty of global finance; it only took Lehman Brothers going down for everything else to fail. George Monbiot writes here about the food system’s pending collapse, comparing it to the way that the financial system crashed in 2008.

Monbiot also points out that hunger, which was a global problem on the way to being solved, started to rise again in recent years; ‘in 2015, the trend began to turn. Hunger has been rising ever since: to 650 million in 2019, and back to 811 million in 2020. This year is likely to be much worse.’ We’re dealing with problems that have been years in the making, perhaps rooted in decades-old methods and attitudes.

The famine pandemic

Just this week the UN warned that the war in Ukraine could cause a global food crisis: ‘The conflict has cut off supplies from Ukraine’s ports, which once exported vast amounts of cooking oil as well as cereals such as maize and wheat.’

Global food prices have risen to almost 30% more than a year ago. In Britain, as inflation hits a forty-year high, the situation is dire.

The energy crisis is pushing families into hunger, forcing a choice between ‘‘heat or eat.’’ Our Green Doctor service is all  too familiar with this phenomenon, which has only increased dramatically this year.

Alternative sources?

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, accounting for 17% of global production. It ‘has been accused of ‘weaponising’ food and holding grain for millions of people around the world hostage to “break the spirit of the Ukrainian people”.

In theory, there would be a way to supplant the loss of grain from Ukraine and Russia, but in practice it is much more complicated.  It all depends on the crop, for one, and that is never certain- especially in the age of climate change and drought.

But then there’s also the subsequent bidding war, and the damage done in the meantime: ‘As the war in Ukraine rages, the combined effect of three failed rainy seasons has pushed parts of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia to the brink, killing livestock, forcing people to leave their homes and increasing levels of child malnutrition. The Russian invasion has exacerbated the situation, pushing up the price of staples such as wheat and sunflower oil, as well as fuel.’

India, who were set to be an alternative wheat supplier, instituted a ban on exports earlier this week. This came after a heatwave hit the country, threatening supply and increasing concerns about crop yield.

Unsustainable production

Much like many of the problems we are facing as a society, it’s too easy to blame Covid, or some other outside factor for their existence. More often than not, the real problems are endemic.

But, with any problem, there is a solution.

Or there’s at least some way to counteract the problem, a way of being resilient and withstanding the pressure.

Food production needs to be more sustainable.

Monbiot argues that ‘we urgently need to diversify global food production, both geographically and in terms of crops and farming techniques.’ Failing to do so will be catastrophic.

It’s not just about reducing emissions or moving away from fossil fuels and being less damaging to the environment. It’s more than that- it’s about rethinking everything. What we have now is unsustainable and failing to recognise that, failing to act on it, will be our downfall.

A sustainable approach

Whether it’s helping people to reduce their energy bills while lowering their carbon footprint, combating social inequality by helping people into work, or helping those isolated and disconnected back into their communities, we know that the sustainable approach takes work.

But it also pays off.

And it’s not just another approach: it’s the only solution.


Matthew Thomas