The loss of the ‘breadbasket’ of Europe


The war in Ukraine has notoriously impacted global supply chains of gas and oil, but of equal concern to the global community are the consequences of the conflict on cereal and grain exports. Russia and Ukraine, nicknamed the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, are both large producers of many agricultural products. The two nations contribute a huge percentage of cereals to the international market: 29% of globally produced wheat, 20% of corn and 80% of global sunflower oil. The Russian invasion has contributed to the disruption of supply chains, leading to significant price hikes in the most basic of commodities: bread. 

The rise in prices are a consequence of a number of factors. Ukraine is unable to export many of its products due both to the shutdown of Black Sea ports, and to the agricultural workforce massively enlisting in the army. Six million tons of wheat are thought to be sitting in warehouses in the ports of Odessa, Mariupol and Mykolaiv, all of which are likely to be left to rot. Meanwhile, Russian and Belarussian exports have been hit by economic sanctions, limiting global access to their wheat and corn reserves, as well as to fertiliser supplies. Combined with extreme weather last year, these issues have caused a global shortage, the consequences of which may be dire. 

The UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warns that the war in Ukraine coupled with climate change and the effects of the pandemic could “tip tens of millions into mass hunger and famine”.

The reduction in supply has led to rising food prices, for example grain prices have risen from 275 Euros per ton in January, to 400 Euros in April. Such dramatic price rises are threatening food security globally, as prices spike many nations are unable to afford basic food products. Those most at risk are the poor nations of the world, 40% of cereal products from Ukraine and Russia last year went to Africa and the Middle East.

Food insecurity can create chaos within a nation, even those that are classed as more economically developed. In the UK, where extreme price rises have contributed to the current cost of living crisis, panic buying has also occurred due to shortages of certain products normally exported by Russia and Ukraine. The UK produces over 90% of its own wheat so is less directly impacted by cereal shortages. However, it is affected by a reduction in the global supply of fertilisers, such shortages limiting our ability to grow the wheat required to feed the nation. In 2021, prior to the war in Ukraine, food prices were already at a decade high due to the pandemic and the energy crisis. 

Whilst the increased cost of grain has had an impact on the British market, food insecurity can ultimately have more dire consequences on countries with a greater dependency on low and stable prices. A spike in the price of bread was a key factor leading to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2009-10. Within an already unstable region such as the Middle East food shortages and higher prices will only create further instability. Protests have already occurred in Southern Iraq due to the lack of government response to food shortages. The threat of famine in Yemen — a nation already consumed by war — is high due to the country’s heavy reliance on wheat imports. War on another continent has led to fear of instability in a region already suffering from a range of other issues that makes it almost impossible to fully respond to this crisis. 

Nations who can respond to this food shortage crisis are enacting a number of solutions. The most common port of call is the restriction of exports of grain to international markets. In the case of Serbia, a total ban on the export of agricultural products has been made to help reduce food shortages within the nation. For agriculturally active countries, this is helping to quell the crisis by maintaining the internal market. However, this action harms the nations that rely on imports to survive. 

On a global level the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warns that the war in Ukraine coupled with climate change and the effects of the pandemic could “tip tens of millions into mass hunger and famine”. There will sadly be deaths within Ukraine, but will there be deaths beyond?

Image: Vugar Ahmadov via Pixabay

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