Responding to rising hunger can threaten climate goals
The world food system was under pressure even before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now – composed of the effect of the war on trade and a corresponding increase in global fuel prices – it is facing two dangerous and intertwined crises.
In the short term, Russia’s war against Ukraine increases the risk of extreme hunger for millions more people. The danger is particularly acute for low-income countries that depend on food imports. And countries like Ethiopia and Yemen are already dealing with conflict-driven hunger.
In the longer term, experts are concerned that the response to these problems could lead to further use of fossil fuels and an expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices. Continuing on this path, they say, could exacerbate the climate crisis and deepen poverty and food insecurity.
Mankind is now feeling the roar of a “hunger seismic crisis”, the World Food Program warned earlier this month.
The United Nations estimates that it pays $ 71 million more per month to fund its operations, while the number of people facing serious food shortages has more than doubled – from about 135 million before the Covid-19 pandemic to about 276 million now.
“We were already short of the money we needed due to several conflicts around the world such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen,” David Beasley, the organization’s executive director, told NPR. “In addition to this, we have had climate shocks, two years of Covid, economic devastation and, just when you think it could not get worse, Ukraine.”
Russia and Ukraine together account for about a quarter of all globally traded wheat and barley and half of the sunflower oil used in cooking. Russia – the world’s leading exporter of wheat – is also a major supplier of fertilizers and fertilizers needed to produce food in the world’s bread baskets.
Sanctions, export restrictions and a halt in shipping from the ports of the Black Sea have put pressure on global food supplies and pushed up prices to record highs.
These disturbances occur at the back of bottlenecks in the supply chain caused by pandemics and crop reductions resulting from drought, extreme rainfall and other severe weather (ClimatewireMarch 16).
“Extremely gloomy picture”
Dozens of countries – including some of the world’s poorest and most food-scarce – depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than a third of their wheat resources, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, receives 80 percent of its supply from Russia and Ukraine. Somalia, one of several countries in the Horn of Africa that is facing a severe and ongoing drought, gets almost all its wheat from these two countries via Egypt.
More than 13 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are already experiencing extreme hunger, according to a recent report by the humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps. It predicts that the figure may double this year if seasonal rains are below average, as expected.
Conflicts exacerbate the problem. Sudan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Afghanistan are also at high risk from rising prices and a shortage of supplies. Yasmin Faruki, a senior political adviser to the Mercy Corps, said they had had to reduce food rations to Yemen, where a civil war created a protracted humanitarian crisis long before the war in Ukraine took place.
“It’s an extremely bleak picture,” said Faruki, who recently returned from a two-week visit to the country.
She said people burned firewood on the side of the road because they could not afford fuel, and that Yemeni families lived on one meal a day at ever-rising prices.
Yemen is almost entirely dependent on imported food aid and receives about 40 percent of its wheat and grain supplies from Ukraine, Faruki said.
“No matter what happens in the world, or what gets headlines, we should not turn our backs on people who are already forgotten,” she said.
“And the energy crisis is very central and linked to what is happening in Yemen and other contexts in the world where you see rising fuel prices, people who can not put food on the table,” Faruki added. “So I hope we do not isolate these things.”
A problem for a long time
Part of the problem stems from years of underinvestment in systems that could respond to the current shocks, experts say.
Political reactions to the war in Ukraine – such as sanctions and export restrictions – have contributed to the rapid rise in food prices. But it is the interplay between the energy and food markets that is exacerbating the situation, said Laura Wellesley, senior researcher in the environmental and community program at Chatham House, during a recent webinar.
“Extremely high energy prices lead to extremely high fertilizer prices, which in turn have immediate consequences for food prices,” she said.
The FAO estimates that another 13 million people could be classified as malnourished next year. If food prices remain high and harvests suffer from a shortage of fertilizers, as natural gas is a raw material in the production of fertilizers used globally, Wellesley said there is a risk that that figure could grow much higher.
And then there is the potential for shocks to the harvest due to climate change, she added.
Drought conditions in the US Midwest could threaten spring wheat production, according to Gro Intelligence, which assesses the effects of climate change on global agricultural market forecasts. Droughts in the Middle East and North Africa are likely to increase these regions’ dependence on imports.
These risks are part of a new reality driven by climate change, according to a report co-authored by Wellesley on the war’s threat to food and energy security.
While the war in Ukraine multiplies the effects of high prices and food insecurity, Wellesley said, these threats are a function of years of unsustainable production and access to food.
However, there are things that countries can do in the short term to try to slow down the damage.
Among them: to keep trade flows open and not to impose protectionist export bans; replacement of synthetic fertilizers with organic fertilizers; and works to reduce food waste and encourage healthier, more sustainable, meat-free diets, which require large volumes of feed.
Countries can also work to increase yields on existing land and reduce the amount of grain used in alternative fuels, such as ethanol, according to the World Resources Institute. According to WRI estimates, if the United States and Europe halved the amount of grain used in the production of corn-based ethanol, they could compensate for the grain exports lost from Ukraine.
But in many places, governments are taking a different approach – trying to relax on long-term climate measures in favor of achieving short-term food and energy security.
Some decision-makers in Europe, for example, are considering easing environmental protection measures to enable increased crop production. EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has said that increasing food production within the bloc should be a priority in the light of the war.
Both the US and the EU are working to expand the use of crop-based biofuels.
“It’s a classic short-term crisis that triggers certain behaviors that set long-term goals on its neck,” said Craig Hanson, vice president of food, forests, water and oceans at the World Resources Institute.
“It’s a fake dichotomy,” he added. “You do not have to sacrifice the long term to meet the need in the short term.”
Need to break the circle
Expanding the area where food is grown does not necessarily lead to higher production – especially if fertilizer prices remain high, says the Chatham House report. And it can lead to negative effects, as agriculture is affected by both climate change and a source of the emissions that drive it.
About 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land use. Expanding arable land to forests or grasslands, which naturally absorb excess carbon in the atmosphere, can emit millions of tonnes of CO2, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss, according to the WRI. A recent study in Nature found that about half of new arable land in the last two decades replaced natural vegetation and tree cover.
If humanity responds to world events by clearing forests and plowing up nature, “then we will put back the ability to deal with climate change,” said Tim Benton, who leads the environmental and community program at Chatham House.
This is a challenge not unlike the one facing the energy sector, where oil and gas companies – especially in the US – are pushing to increase production to bring down prices and supply Europe as they try to stop imports of fossil fuels from Russia.
How world leaders respond to the current challenge will determine how power and food are produced in the future – and how much these systems are in line with efforts to reduce emissions warmed by the planet.
That said, experts said the world simply could not get out of either an energy crisis or a food crisis.
“There has never been so much investment in agriculture in absolute dollar terms, and there has never been so much production,” said Harry Verhoeven, a researcher focusing on the links between water, energy and food security at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
“Yet, as we have seen over the last 10 years, it has not stopped the number of desperately hungry people, or chronically hungry people, from increasing,” Verhoeven added.
The discrepancy between these trend lines matters, he said, because it means that producing or investing more will not solve the problem.
There are other structural reasons – discrimination, marginalization, markets that do not work for people – that make people starve, Verhoeven said. Access to food is not the same as availability.
“We need to stop the transformation of natural ecosystems as soon as possible. Climate science is very strong at that,” said Hanson of the World Resources Institute. leading people down what I would argue is the false solution to expand the cultivation area and the grazing area. “
In an emergency, it is difficult to say no to immediate measures that can increase supply and lower prices, Wellesley said.
But that approach risks perpetuating a broken system, she added.
A wide range of experts have warned that ignoring climate change now could lead to worse environmental conditions in the future – setting the stage for future conflicts and the far-reaching effects that follow.
“In fact, we’ll be in this situation over and over again,” Wellesley said. “And at some point, you have to break that circle and realize that what we are doing to allegedly mitigate the worst effects is actually exacerbating the situation.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.