How to prevent food from becoming a weapon of war
The conflict in Ukraine has exposed the fragile geopolitics that underpin global food systems, threatening the health, livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people around the world.
Just as Europe is now counting the cost of relying on imported fossil fuels, the crisis brings into stark relief the world’s reliance on limited sources of a critical staple food. With gas supplies already being weaponized, the potential remains for global food security to be held hostage in the conflict, with wheat a bargaining chip for the lives of millions.
Wheat prices have been classed as highly volatile for more than 150 days, spiking in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But in a commodity market that trades in futures — which surged by 50 percent since the war began — the full impact is yet to be felt, with Ukraine’s next wheat harvest due from June.
The ripples are growing. Wheat consumption among the urban poor in import-dependent Sudan, a country already ranked as having “serious” food security issues, has dropped by 5 percent. And, Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, along with the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has seen rising prices and insufficient supply.
Food must be protected and prioritized as a human right. With only weeks before the next harvest, the world, and in particular the global South, must act quickly to mitigate the threat to global food security. Policymakers need to take urgent, evidence-based action to prevent the looming crisis from spreading around the world.
At the same time, they must also make the right decisions for the longer term because this will not be the last crisis to destabilize global markets and food supplies. While the global community must step up to address the urgent humanitarian needs of those directly affected now, we must also be better prepared for future food shocks.
Investing in agricultural science, research and innovation will provide solutions and support evidence-based policy. Governments can draw upon existing research and lessons learned from previous food crises, both to make strategic decisions with the greatest likelihood of preventing food shortages, price hikes and hunger, as well as to build greater long-term resilience through more diverse and equitable food systems.
Schemes developed during the COVID-19 pandemic for the fast-tracked movement of food should be adapted to circumvent bottlenecks caused by the war. Targeted assistance and social protection must be enacted with an eye to the needs of particularly vulnerable groups. Local and international financing assistance for low-income countries with large import requirements should be assessed. Biofuel mandates diverting wheat and other crops to ethanol production must be suspended to help avert the global food systems crisis.
Farmers and policymakers in alternative breadbaskets around the world can support increased production of wheat but also other staple cereals to fill the supply gap. Over the past 10 years, India has adopted more than 100 new varieties of wheat and incorporated the cereal into mixed rice-wheat systems to diversify and improve production. But high fuel and fertilizer prices, exacerbated by the conflict, are hindering these intensification and diversification efforts.
Meanwhile, in the medium to longer-term, governments, funders, the private sector, and foundations should be prioritizing agricultural research and development to drive the shift toward a more sustainable, resilient — and therefore shock-proof — global food system.
We need innovations to improve the management of crops, livestock and fish systems and increase yields sustainably, using land, water and fertilizer wisely. Sustainably increasing production will in turn help to drive down the cost of food, making safe, nutritious diets more affordable and accessible.
One way to support this is to accelerate the breeding of new and improved varieties of key crops to increase production within the bounds of local ecosystems and resources. CGIAR scientists have already developed thousands of new crop varieties bred specifically for heat, drought and disease tolerance and enhanced nutritional qualities, helping to reduce infant mortality by one-third across the developing world and averting up to 6 million infant deaths each year. However, as the climate continues to change and food systems challenges compound, these breeds and characteristics need ongoing fine-tuning.
Agricultural research plays a critical role not only in transforming food systems but also in anticipating food needs and shortages, developing innovative solutions and working with governments to give countries the best possible chance of minimizing threats to food and nutrition security. As well as taking urgent and evidence-based action now, the world needs a systemic shift toward greater long-term resilience and stability in our food, land and water systems.
Hunger recognizes neither borders nor flags, and the global community must use every resource at its disposal to prevent food from becoming a weapon of war.
Marco Ferroni is chair of CGIAR System Board. CGIAR is the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research network.
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