The Ukrainian flag famously represents the country’s golden wheat fields under a clear blue sky. That pastoral symbolism is taking on a much darker tone with Russia’s invasion, given the importance of both countries to global food security. Even if food is not a direct target, Russia’s devastating attacks on Ukraine will probably affect the availability of food in both countries and around the world, which may well spark instability beyond the region.
As the first- and fifth-largest wheat exporters globally, worth more than a collective $11 billion, Russia and Ukraine are essential breadbaskets to the world. While wheat is hardly the only important commodity under pressure from Russia’s war, it has an outsized role in global food security as a staple crop. More than 2.5 billion people worldwide consume wheat, including significant populations in many fragile and food-insecure regions.
With global wheat prices at their highest level in a decade, tighter global supplies or sudden price spikes will raise the probability of humanitarian disasters, as well as a secondary risk of social unrest and even conflict. In 2007–08, for example, skyrocketing wheat and rice prices helped to spark the 2011 Arab Spring. Ukraine remains an especially important wheat supplier to low- and middle-income countries in North Africa and the Middle East, which are already grappling with governance problems and instability. That includes Yemen, caught in a vicious cycle of war and famine; Tunisia, still struggling with political fragility; and Egypt, which has a history of policies that magnify social unrest related to food prices. Even a short-term price jump could have catastrophic results for customers who are simply unable to pay higher wheat prices — in fact, those catastrophes may already be in motion.
Russia’s invasion could have other compounding effects on the agricultural sector. Both Russia and Ukraine export nitrogen fertilizer as well as energy, and cuts to those exports will exacerbate pandemic-related supply chain challenges that have already driven up prices of these essential farming inputs.
Furthermore, climatic instability — such as drought conditions and heavier than usual rains — has been hitting agricultural production around the world for both domestic and export markets, including in the United States. With global climate change contributing to cascading crises that threaten to overwhelm existing risk management tools, the potential for a global food catastrophe is unprecedented, at least in recent history. In areas where food insecurity erupts in hunger and violence, out-migration can become the only viable coping strategy for thousands or even millions of people. Last month’s United Nations IPCC report warned that not only are climate and weather extremes increasingly driving human displacement in all regions, but also food insecurity and malnutrition are compounding stresses in Africa and Central and South America. The current conflict, coupled with climate-related disruptions in the world’s major grain-producing regions, could unleash unbearable waves of displacement, humanitarian consequences, civil unrest, major financial losses worldwide, and geopolitical fragility.
In bracing for the near-term food emergencies that Russia has put in motion, governments and international organizations should also focus on that bigger risk picture for multiple breadbasket failures. That means building resilience to shocks, which are growing in number and magnitude. One critical ingredient will be better forecasting through continuous monitoring and early warning systems. Research is also important. Famines used to be a fairly common occurrence worldwide, but decades of research have led to major gains in agricultural productivity and a decline in the number and severity of food security crises.
At the same time, that research is not enough to support system-level transformation in complex, interconnected global agri-food systems. Nations should invest more, not just in the science of agriculture, but also in the science of effective policy interventions to reduce the risk of breadbasket failures, and specifically the risks to staple cereal crops such as wheat and maize. All research needs to be multidisciplinary, transparent, and directed toward improving the resiliency of food systems to shock and toward understanding the complex links between food security and peace.
Of necessity, better agricultural resilience will also require more international cooperation. That may seem unrealistic in the current geopolitical mood, but no matter what else is happening in bilateral relationships, nations should be able to agree to cooperate when it comes to hunger and food.
The United States and other nations and international organizations are scrambling to provide emergency food aid for Ukraine and possibly millions of people around the world with disrupted food supplies, but they must also take the long view on agriculture, conflict, and resilience. While the current war is probably spawning a wider food crisis, this will not be the last big shock to the system.
Sharon E. Burke is president of Ecospherics. She served in the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, most recently as an assistant secretary of defense. Bram Govaerts is director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and a professor at large at Cornell University.