Since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the world has been facing enormous threats to food security and its capacity to meet peoples’ needs. Russia and Ukraine are two of the most important wheat exporters in the world, and the war and economic sanctions imposed on Russia have prevented the two countries from maintaining the same export volume of wheat and other key food commodities. This now poses a grave threat for global food security. As a result, other countries have accelerated measures to increase their arable land and develop self-sufficiency to ensure food security. These steps will also help countries to mitigate any domestic unrest that arises as a result of food shortages and price spikes. It remains to be seen whether these countries will be able to achieve self-sufficiency through increasing agricultural production.
The Russia-Ukraine war halted all trade from Ukraine’s ports, which has hindered the country’s ability to export agricultural products. Ukraine had previously met up to 45% of the world’s demand for wheat.
Former Ukrainian Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Roman Leshchenko said that the spring harvest in Ukraine would reach only half of its 2021 levels.
The war has pushed many farmers to flee to neighboring countries for their safety. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only 20 to 30% of winter crops in Ukraine will be harvested due to lack of manpower. The same scenario is happening in Russia as well. As a result, the governments of various other countries have deemed it necessary to increase agricultural production. The measures they have adopted can be summarized as follows:
1. Ireland will expand cultivation of some crops: Amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Irish government has launched a 12-million-euro plan to expand the cultivation of barley, wheat, and oats to make up for reduced supply from Ukraine. This is especially important since Ireland was largely dependent on Ukraine for these crops. However, Irish farmers did not welcome the government’s plans since they felt that the subsidies allocated for mitigating rising fuel and fertilizer prices were insufficient for expanding agricultural activities.
2. US farmers aim to increase arable land: The US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service stated that the US government was seeking to improve agricultural productivity. It added that farmers are trying to produce substantial quantities of soybeans—twice the projected harvest for wheat this year, since soybeans require less fertilizer. This shift suggests an awareness of rising prices and the decreasing availability of fertilizers.
3. Senegal will increase its agricultural budget: Senegal imports around 650,000 tons of wheat annually, a huge portion of which comes from Russia and Ukraine. To address the current wheat shortage, the government of Senegal has begun to prepare to cultivate crops such as corn, millet, and beans locally. It has increased its agricultural budget by 10 billion CFA francs to deal with the food crisis and support owners of small agricultural holdings and local farmers, as well as to support bakers in producing bread from locally-sourced materials such as black-eyed peas.
4. EU aims to expand agricultural production: The EU has approved a plan to achieve sustainable development, promote biodiversity, and expand the quality and quantity of environmentally-friendly agricultural production. It had been largely reliant on Ukrainian crops, which were affected by the war, and announced plans to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030. The EU is trying to expand the cultivation of spring crops such as corn, barley, and sunflower seeds despite an input shortage resulting from supply chain disruptions that have hindered agricultural operations.
Countries aiming to increase their agricultural production are facing several challenges that can be summarized as follows:
1. Fertilizer shortage limits options for production: The shortage of fertilizers has significantly impacted agricultural markets today and limited options for expanding agricultural production in high-, medium-, and low-income countries. The sanctions on Russia have also restricted the export of fertilizers from Russia and Belarus.
Despite the importance of increasing wheat production to compensate for the projected shortage in global markets and to benefit from higher global prices, high- and low-income countries alike have resorted to investing in less fertilizer-intensive crops. This is especially important since some countries do not have a local factory for fertilizer production. For example, Rwanda completely depends on Russia for fertilizer imports, which has hindered efforts by the Rwandan government to increase agricultural production and meet its citizens’ needs.
2. Rising fertilizer and energy prices: Fertilizer prices have soared since the war in Ukraine, which has left low- and medium-income countries with two options. First, they can proceed with expanding agricultural production despite high prices and let customers bear the costs. Second, they can produce and use less fertilizer. Rising energy prices from the war in Ukraine have increased agricultural production costs. Natural gas is crucial for producing nitrogen fertilizers and fuels needed to ramp up production and transport crops.
3. Small farmers lack access to markets: Owners of small agricultural holdings will face huge challenges in accessing markets and being involved in supply chains, if they expand their agricultural production as per government plans. This is due to a lack of funds, resources, and capabilities with regard to crop diversification.
4. Disparate environments and soil types: The type of environment and soil are important in increasing agricultural production since some environments are not conducive to growing certain crops. For example, Rwanda is a small and mountainous country with acidic soil that lacks the soil types suitable for agriculture. Shyaka Revocatus, a Cordaid value chain advisor, said that Rwanda was its unable to expand its wheat production despite the importance of the crop and the country’s desire to grow more wheat. As a result, the government of Rwanda is focusing on wheat alternatives that can be produced locally, such as cassava and sweet potatoes.
Cultivated land in arid and temperate regions has also decreased in recent decades. However, cultivated land in several tropical countries has increased during the same period of time. This might be due to the fact that equatorial regions are more biologically diverse: more than half of the world’s plant species live in tropical forests.
5. Adverse effects of climate change: In light of the aforementioned points, it could be argued that food production is correlated with population growth. Climate change also poses a significant threat to agricultural productivity as weather conditions become increasingly intolerable for certain crops. Moreover, traditional agricultural methods jeopardize the global environment through releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases and consuming significant amounts of fresh water.
6. Past "peak agricultural land": It is widely believed that the world has reached peak agricultural land. However, food production on this land has not yet reached its peak. Peak use of agricultural land was achieved during early twenty-first century but has been declining since then. There has been a slight increase again in recent years, with gains continuing to be made in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South America. This does not necessarily mean that food production will increase through expanding into new plots of land. Instead, countries can enhance production in accordance with their weather conditions, soil types, and capabilities. These factors will favor some crops over others and will ultimately contribute to an increase in agricultural productivity.
In conclusion, the war in Ukraine is a different kind of war—a battle between two great agricultural powers. As a result, the war’s impact on food security and global agriculture has been unprecedented. After seven weeks of war, exports from Ukraine were suspended and global food prices rose. The countries most affected were those that depended on agricultural exports from Russia or Ukraine, or on Russian or Belarusian fertilizer. The war has prompted countries to take different approaches to increasing food production, which has been difficult to achieve. Increasing food production requires certain capabilities. However, as the crisis expands, so do its possible solutions. The major issue now is no longer production itself, but rather rising prices. The price of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides has become exorbitant. Farmers are facing significant production challenges given the high price of inputs, while rising food prices also cripple consumers’ purchasing power.