Food supply chains have been disrupted by a number of forces in recent times; ongoing climate change threatens production, Covid-19 has impacted production and logistics, rising energy prices are hitting production and distribution costs as well as household budgets, whilst Brexit is sending shockwaves of its own to supply chains. The net result has been to increase levels of food insecurity at all geographic scales. Now Russia has invaded the Ukraine, the ‘bread-basket of the world’. And the geopolitical fallout includes further tightening of energy supplies and rapidly rising costs. Thus, a perfect storm of factors is leading to a food crisis of potentially historical significance.
In this blog, we explore the significance of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in terms of global food security, the deepening of the UK’s food crisis and reflect upon the threats and opportunities for the broader sustainability agenda in these fast-moving and very challenging times.
A humanitarian crisis
One of the most immediate implications of the war in Ukraine is food scarcity in and around the country. As millions of refugees leave the country there has been a mass mobilisation of food aid to feed people at Ukraine’s borders. Conflict remains a leading contributor to food insecurity through humanitarian hardship, wherever the conflict takes place in the world (FAO, 2021). Food is amongst a number of items being donated by countries across the world. Supermarkets in the UK are responding by donating millions of pounds to support charities, as well as essential items such as food, water and medical supplies.
A further immediate implication is the considerable wastage of food in Ukraine. This concerns not only the closure of food retail businesses, but damage to the millions of tonnes of crops being produced. A suspended agricultural sector potentially means that millions of tonnes of food under production will not be properly processed, stored or exported (IFPRI, 2022).
An increase in food prices will be felt globally
The region plays a critical role in both producing and manufacturing key inputs into the global food system. Ukraine and Russia produce more than 70% of the global market volume of sunflower oil and conduct 30% of the world’s wheat and barley exports, for example (IFPRI, 2022). With Ukraine announcing a ban on the export of rye, barley, buckwheat, millet, sugar, salt and meat until the end of 2022, food insecurity will mount rapidly across the globe (Reuters, 2022).
The most evident impact that will be felt globally is the increase in food prices. The crisis is further disrupting commodity markets, which were already volatile due to the Covid pandemic. Food prices are expected to continue to rise, amongst rising uncertainty jeopardising the food security of millions who depend on affordable food (Food Navigator, 2022; AMIS, 2022). The Ukraine crisis has placed new strains on global supply chains, given the reliance on both Ukrainian and Russian businesses and the wider call to boycott business activities in Russia (Forbes, 2022; The Guardian, 2022).
The world’s most food insecure are likely to be hit hardest. Lower-income countries have limited ability to protect themselves from rising food prices whilst the world’s most food insecure are being placed in a precarious position (FAO, 2021). For food businesses the shocking rise in the cost of fertilizer will ramp up the cost of producing food. Fertilizer prices have increased significantly to over £1,000 a tonne in the UK for example.
The key driver for this is the rapid increase in natural gas prices, which is a feedstock for nitrogen-based fertilizers such as urea and ammonia. Russia, as the world’s largest producers of synthetic fertilizers, has placed restrictions on its export, worsening the situation. Countries across Europe and Africa have high dependencies on both nitrogen and potassium-based fertilizers produced in Russia and Belarus. This presents a further medium term agricultural situation of future poor harvests, without such inputs to growing crops. The situation is all the more serious given the timing of this disruption, when food producers are entering a new planting phase as springtime begins in the western hemisphere.
UK food businesses are already facing price rises due to inflation
The increased cost of producing food has an impact on food manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Food businesses were already warning of increased food prices in July 2021, as a result of a rise in the cost of raw materials. This will be made all the more severe in the UK, given the rising cost of inflation. Bakery chain Greggs, for example, expects overall inflation to reach 6 to 7% this year, adding 5p to the cost of some of its products. The rise in the cost of items in the supermarket is well reported, with shoppers facing a £180 year increased spend and the Chairman of supermarket chain Tesco predicting that the worst is yet to come on food price inflation.
A deepening of the UK food insecurity crisis
These increases in food prices are a key component of the worsening cost of living crisis facing UK householders. Combined with already inflated energy prices, average disposable incomes in Britain are predicted to fall 4%, costing the average household £1,000, according to the Resolution Foundation. Lower income households were already struggling considerably following the Covid pandemic, with food insecurity now higher than pre-Covid levels, affecting 4.7 million adults (The Food Foundation, 2021). Work by CBiS researchers has highlighted the significant increased demand for emergency food provision, with organisations such as Fareshare expanding their services during the pandemic to support community food organisations across the UK. Ongoing CBiS research reveals that community food organisations are facing a number of challenges in sustaining their services (Smith et al., 2021). Increases in the cost of food, energy and resources, will disrupt social eating activities that play an important commensal and care role in communities (Smith and Harvey, 2021).
The food crisis as a double-edged sword for sustainability?
Looking forward, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will be a double-edged sword when it comes to progressing towards a more sustainable and resilient food future. On the one hand, a crisis situation has generated calls for greater urgency in reducing our reliance on both fossil fuel-derived products and fossil fuels more broadly. There is potential for this to spur a transition to more sustainable alternatives. For example, Russia is a key producer of peat, an input in horticultural growing media that in its harvesting not only disrupts wild habitats but also releases harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (Bek et al., 2020). Bans on imports of Russian peat could trigger innovations towards more sustainable growing media. Concerns about food’s carbon footprints have led to serious consideration being given to the incorporation of insects into Western diets as a lower impact alternative to animal protein (Tiwasing et al., 2021). Times of crisis give a renewed impetus to consider such sustainable future pathways.
Conversely, the Ukraine conflict has sparked concerns that the green agenda and climate change commitments could unravel. In the case of food, farming groups have stated their intention to purchase less fertilizer and plant more crops over a larger area to maintain similar yields (Financial Times, 2022). Irish farming associations have warned of the need to overlook legislation on fertilizer usage for the 2022 growing season. Concerns have also been raised that calls to cultivate all available land by EU farming groups to combat disruption will undermine wider sustainability ambitions. Measures to prevent soil erosion and biodiversity loss could be over-looked in favour of ramping up food production. Whilst more local fossil fuel-based energy sources may be brought on stream to replace lost supplies from Russia.
These are turbulent times, with multiple immediate crises to manage, while longer term problems are stacking up. Impactful research is going to be increasingly vital, as politicians and policy makers strive to manage these situations in the short-term, while needing also to avoid setting in train longer term problems. The collective impacts of the perfect storm are potentially calamitous for societies across the globe and the natural world. However, there are opportunities within the ferment for more progressive, sustainable futures to be forged but the road ahead looks distinctly rocky. The most immediate crisis, though, remains the health and wellbeing, food insecurity and of course safety of the people in the Ukraine war zone.
Food Futures at the Centre for Business in Society
Food Futures is a pivotal focus for the Sustainable Production and Consumption research cluster within the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University. Our work spans food issues at different points in the supply chain, including food waste, food insecurity at all geographic scales, sustainable production, ethical consumption, and certification systems. For further information please contact David.Bek@coventry.ac.uk.
– AMIS (2022). Message of the AMIS Chair on the crisis in Ukraine. [online] Available from < http://www.amis-outlook.org/news/detail/en/c/1155455/>
– Bashiri, M., Tjahjono, B., Lazell, J., Ferreira, J., and Perdana, T. (2021). ‘The Dynamics of Sustainability Risks in the Global Coffee Supply Chain: A Case of Indonesia–UK’. Sustainability (Switzerland) 13 (2), 1–20
– Bek, D., Lennartsson Turner, M., Lanari, N., Conroy, J. and Evans, A. (2020). Transitioning to peat free horticulture in the UK: An assessment of policy, progress, opportunities and barriers. [online] Available from <https://hta.org.uk/uploads/assets/219d3ce6-e9a2-4659-b0a52d7a1bd6dd1e/FINALCOVNTRYUNIREPORT-HTAGMAFinalCoversauthors29Sept20-1.pdf>
– FAO (2021). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. [online] Available from <https://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/2021/en/>
– Financial Times (2022). UK farmers braced for spring fertilizer crunch after prices triple. [online] Available from < https://www.ft.com/content/7dae8fdc-bc09-4322-80f9-fde081508235>
– Food Navigator (2022). A turning point in global food pricing? Ukraine conflict threatens food security. [online] Available from < https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2022/03/02/ukraine-conflict-to-bring-higher-food-prices>
– Forbes (2022). Ukraine Crisis Creates New Strains on Global Supply Chains.
Available from < https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2022/03/06/ukraine-crisis-creates-new-strains-on-global-supply-chains/?sh=264445c510af>
– IFPRI (2022). How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect global food security? International Food Policy Research Institute, blog issue post.
Available from <https://www.ifpri.org/blog/how-will-russias-invasion-ukraine-affect-global-food-security>
– Resolution Foundation (2022). The Living Standards Outlook 2022. [online] Available from < https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/the-living-standards-outlook-2022/>
– Reuters (2022). Ukraine bans exports of several grains, sugar, salt, meat.
Available from < https://www.reuters.com/business/ukraine-bans-exports-several-grains-sugar-salt-meat-2022-03-09/
– Smith, M. and Harvey, J. (2021). Social Eating Initiatives and the Practices of Commensality. Appetite [online] 105107. available from <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105107>
– Smith, M., Bek, D. and Lazell, J. (2021). Fighting Hunger and Tackling Food Waste: A view from the frontline of community food provisioning during the pandemic. Online research Seminar. Hosted by the Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, UK.
– The Food Foundation (2021). A crisis within a crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on Household Food Security. [online] Available from <https://foodfoundation.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-10/FF_Impact-of-Covid_FINAL.pdf>
– The Guardian (2022). Pressure grows on McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to suspend Russia Operations. [online] Available from <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/mar/08/pressure-grows-on-mcdonalds-and-coca-cola-to-suspend-russia-operations>
– Tiwasing, P, Bek, D. and Ferreira, J. (2022). Food Systems of the Future as Climate Change Mitigation finds a place for Edible Insects. Available from <https://blogs.coventry.ac.uk/researchblog/food-systems-of-the-future-as-climate-change-mitigation-finding-a-place-for-edible-insects/>