“Ukraine has only compounded a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe” —David M. Beasley, Director, U.N. World Food Program
Climate change is the backdrop to everything on the global stage.
So, when we discuss the burgeoning food crisis that’s causing hunger-driven instability in much of the developing world and price inflation everywhere, we are speaking in the context of global warming. All of the other factors contributing to agricultural disruption — desertification, pandemics, war — are exacerbated by the erratic weather, flooding and droughts linked to climate change.
Now, if climate change were the only factor affecting global food production, it might be manageable, at least for a while. If, for example, dry conditions worsened gradually and somewhat sporadically around the world, there might be time for the global community to take measures to reduce the disruption and eventually adapt — assuming it decided to act like a community and address the common threat. Fossil fuels could be mostly eliminated while drought-tolerant grains were developed and water-conservation measures taken.
So ancient ethnic rivalries in, say, Syria, erupt into civil war when drought, exacerbated by climate change, causes severe shortages and competition for food.
But that’s not how it’s playing out. As warming proceeds apace, it interacts with and amplifies the vestigial destabilizing aspects of human civilization we’ve thus far failed to address: overpopulation, excessive consumption in the developed world, tribalism, nationalism and aggression. So ancient ethnic rivalries in, say, Syria, erupt into civil war when drought, exacerbated by climate change, causes severe shortages and competition for food.
While wars over resources are nothing new, they’ll surely become more common as populations grow and resources shrink, in no small measure due to climate change. And war creates its own shortages, which can foster more political instability, including new wars.
Which brings us to the crisis du jour, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its likely effect on global food security.
When I was a boy, my mother explained that Germany and Russia had fought over Ukraine for centuries because it’s the “breadbasket of Europe,” where enough wheat is grown to feed the populations of those countries. Indeed, in 2021 Ukraine accounted for 9% of the world’s wheat exports, while Russia, the other participant in Putin’s “special military operation” in the breadbasket, contributed 19%.
Not this year. Unless there is an immediate ceasefire, it would take a minor miracle for Ukraine to get even a tiny fraction of its spring wheat planted, and any wheat that’s harvested will likely go to feeding Ukrainians. That’s also true for Ukraine’s 16% of the world’s corn exports. And while Russia can probably plant and harvest grain, its ability to export it will be severely hampered by the international sanctions she’s under.
Also, Russia and Belarus together account for almost 20% of global fertilizer exports. Both countries are sanctioned, and will likely stop those exports altogether.
So those poor countries from Egypt to India — which, in great measure because of climate change, need to import some or almost all their food — can no longer buy breadbasket grain and, without fertilizer and with ongoing erratic weather and droughts, will struggle to grow their own. Meanwhile, China lost one-third of this spring’s wheat crop to climate-change-amplified flooding, so it will compete with poorer countries for shrinking grain supplies. Food prices in import-dependent countries will skyrocket, and political instability will surely follow.
Prior to the latest war shock, the global food-safety system was already teetering on the brink of collapse. The UN’s World Food Program (UNWFP), which feeds 125 million people per day, will now have to cut rations for 3.8 million people. “We’ll be taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said UNWFP Director David M. Beasley.
Of course, it’s possible that there will be a ceasefire in Ukraine and international food markets will temporarily stabilize — allowing climate change to reclaim center stage in the global food crisis at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.
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