By Robert Turner
The war in Ukraine is straining global food supply lines and sending prices higher everywhere.
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic and then Russian hackers on our oil and beef supply created food shortages and higher prices that revealed the weak links in our globalized food system. It turns out that was just a warning. Now a war in Ukraine is testing those global supply lines again.
In an attempt to shore up its wartime food supplies, Ukraine has limited exports of sunflower oil, wheat, oats and meat. There is also concern that there will not be enough non-soldier farmers to plant and harvest crops this year. Meanwhile, Russia banned sales and exports of fertilizer, sugar and important grains.
Countries that were dependent on Russian fertilizer (made from natural gas) are now scrambling to source chemical fertilizers elsewhere around the world in order to shore up their own agriculture sector so that they can continue growing food at home.
Indonesia produces more than half the world’s palm oil, which is used heavily in processed and packaged foods (usually labeled as “vegetable oil”). That country stopped all outgoing shipments to ensure an affordable supply for its own citizens. The move will only add to skyrocketing prices for vegetable oils that started with the war in Ukraine, the world’s largest producer of sunflower oil.
The protectionism and hoarding continue around the world. Turkey recently stopped exports of butter, beef, lamb, corn and vegetable oils, among other food-related items. It has become starkly clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a new wave of protectionism as governments try to secure food and other commodities for their own citizens by stopping exports at their borders.
In global politics, there is one thing that you can always count on for certain: nations will always act out of self-interest. Always. You cannot expect otherwise. Like the panic-buying of toilet paper at grocery stores, just the threat of the shortage will bring it into existence, and so the current wave of national food protectionism will only compound the problems of worldwide food shortages.
Grocery stores in Spain, Greece and Britain are already restricting the cereals and oil that people can buy. Shoppers are already feeling the pinch of limited supplies and higher prices in other key commodities.
Restrictions on the export of grains, meat, oils and fertilizer will make some items much more expensive as they become harder to find, and it will put an even greater burden on the world’s poorest nations, who are already paying the largest share of their income for food; upwards of 40 percent of income goes toward food in some countries. This will increase the risk of social unrest in those nations struggling with food insecurity which can then spread across a broader region.
Global supply chains may at times reduce costs for consumers, but they create much greater risk to food security. Former U. S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell once told me in an interview that the United Kingdom is so dependent on imported food that it’s just nine meals away from chaos and food riots in the street. The US isn’t quite that bad, but we are importing more and more of our food. As noted in previous articles, the United States has a growing dependence on drought-stricken
California and Central and South America for its food supply, including fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.
This terrible war in Ukraine will force many people around the globe to again reevaluate what is important, like a reliable food supply, and, hopefully, take the important steps to rebuild their own infrastructures, food production and processing centers, even if that comes with slightly higher food prices.
I think, perhaps, at a deeper level I want some control, some way of determining my own destiny, some way of becoming less dependent on a fractured system. And like most people, I want the conveniences of life without the huge carbon footprint that often comes with global trade. Studies have shown that a simple breakfast can add up to 25,000 food miles, or the circumference of the earth. The coffee, dairy and fruit can really pile on the miles. We need to strike some sort of balance between convenience, variety and our own food sovereignty.
I want to grow food at my farm and to eat ethically and humanely if I can. And I think most people would like to use their purchasing power to create a better world. No one really wants to intentionally harm the environment or create food insecurity. I believe that when people shop for organic, pasture-raised or free-range food, at the farmers market or at Whole Foods, in some way they are trying to purchase their ideals and values—to validate their beliefs by what they purchase and consume. And like most people, I want convenience and variety but also to keep some semblance of self-esteem so that I can sleep at night.
We humans seek meaning, even in our purchases and consumption. We want to have faith in the system, and so we must find a balance in global trade, and not dependence.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities and the newly published Lewis Mumford & The Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.