Ukraine war: temporary glitch or tipping point?

Almost everyone reading these words hopes for a quick resolution to the war in Ukraine. But, with population growth straining global food systems, what might Russia’s aggression mean for global agricultural production and humanity’s ability to feed itself going forward?

by Jane O’Sullivan

Back in 2015, the insurance underwriter Lloyds published a wake-up call for the world’s preparedness for a sudden food system shock. Their scenario, a strong el Niño event, caused droughts or floods affecting most of the world’s biggest grain growing areas simultaneously. Global grain harvests were only down by around 10% but this triggered a quadrupling of grain prices on the international market. Importers with more bargaining power left little for poorer countries like Bangladesh and Yemen to buy. Food riots were anticipated in many countries, with potential to escalate into political instability.

The lesson from this study was that building ever-more interdependent global systems to deal with the steady increase in food demand is building a house of cards. As the Lloyds report says, “As the pressure on our global food supply rises, so too does its vulnerability to sudden acute disruptions.” A common riposte to any claim of overpopulation is that there is plenty of food produced for 8 billion people, if it were fairly distributed. But the more redistribution needed, the greater the vulnerability. The steady divergence between the places where population is growing most and the places with capacity to increase food production builds a tension that can easily snap.

According to the Lloyds report, how far such crises escalate would depend on geopolitical responses. Interestingly, one potential escalation they considered was if Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, cutting off grain exports from the Black Sea. This is the unlucky situation we now face.

Russia and the Ukraine are vitally important to the global food system. They alone account for 14% of global wheat production and a quarter of globally traded wheat, as well as large chunks of global supply for maize and seed oils. So it’s no surprise to see a spate of recent articles discussing the impact of the Ukraine war on food security.

An upbeat article in The Atlantic suggests that higher global food prices might be just what African farmers need to incentivise them to adopt modern farming methods and lift production. And, when so many Africans are farmers, higher prices could boost their incomes. However, this crisis is as much about farm inputs as outputs. Fertiliser prices were already at record highs due to high gas prices (used to produce nitrogen fertilisers) and pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions. Russia and China are the biggest exporters of nitrogen fertilisers, and Russia together with Belarus supplies 40% of the world’s potassium fertiliser.

It’s well known that sudden increases in global food prices trigger violent unrest. A 2011 study, at the height of the last major food price spike, dramatically documented this effect (Figure 1). The FAO’s Food Price Index settled down after 2011, but since the Covid-19 pandemic it has risen to unprecedented heights, even before the Ukraine war.

Figure 1 A: The concurrence of violent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East with elevated food prices from January 2004 to May 2011. Red vertical lines correspond to beginning dates of “food riots” and protests; the overall death toll is reported in parentheses. Source: Lagi et al., 2011. B: FAO’s Food Price Index updated to March 2022, showing the recent escalation exceeding the 2011 peak. Yellow line is the inflation-adjusted price. Source: FAO.

This Ukraine war is not coming on the back of an el Niño, but the strains on the world food system are similar. Bad weather in Canada and Europe last season has primed wheat price rises, east African droughts have brought a resurgence of hunger, COVID-19 has affected workforces and distribution systems, and high energy prices affect everything from fertilisers up. The risk of a more protracted crisis will be heightened if eastern Ukraine is unable to plant crops this spring. Geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan thinks this could be the beginning of the end of globalised agriculture. According to him, widespread famines would then be inevitable since a deglobalised food system can’t support our current global population.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the famous Club of Rome Limits to Growth study, which modelled how continued growth in global population and industrial activity would exceed sustainable limits and cause a crash. The ‘standard run’ model, in which societies failed to heed warnings of unsustainability, predicted the unravelling to begin around now. The models were roundly ridiculed by mainstream economists as simplistic and Malthusian, but recently Richard Heinberg reminds us that the past 50 years have closely matched that ‘standard run’. There are any number of possibilities for humanity to get through this particular tight spot, but until world population growth ends the next can only be tighter. If not food, then energy or environmental disasters could tip the balance into cascading system failures.

Figure 2. The Limits to Growth ‘standard run’ (business as usual) scenario, with dotted lines showing the model’s projection and bold lines showing historical data since the model’s publication in 1972. Source: Turner (2012)

The Ukraine war is only one of a dozen crises already smouldering in our tinderbox world. Most are in countries suffering rampant population growth, from Ethiopia to Haiti. This is not the case in Ukraine, whose population has declined since 1990. Yet there are remnants of old battles for ‘lebensraum’ in the complex back-story of this war – the ethnically Russian populations of eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine are a legacy that now muddies sovereignty claims. But, spared of the paranoia and megalomania of Russian leaders, there is every prospect for Ukraine to enjoy peace and increasing prosperity as its population shrinks. In contrast, it is difficult to imagine any happily-ever-after for Somalia or South Sudan while population growth continues apace. If peace is achieved in these countries, it will be more likely through suppression of dissent than resolution of grievances.

Wherever new conflicts erupt, the media will report on ethnic tensions, bad harvests and geopolitical meddling by king-makers with an eye on resource exploitation—not overpopulation. But these triggers are precisely how overpopulation plays out, in the end.


To readers: Please comment below if the food security situation in your country is worsening or improving.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 thoughts on “Ukraine war: temporary glitch or tipping point?

  1. 100% on target!!! Thanks so much for the thoughtful reminder. (Live in USA, so can’t comment on “food security” question. (Can comment on food inflation, but you know that already.).

  2. Unfortunately the analysis provided is true,
    . We need more effort to reduce human population, a concerted effort by many groups is required
    Aroop Mangalik

  3. As usual, Jane O’Sullivan is spot on. I’ve retired to the U.S. cornbelt (Champaign County, IL) and bought farmland as a retirement investment. So I’ve been learning about industrial farming and commodity markets. Half the topsoil is gone from Iowa. Illinois’ top grade farmland has lost half of it’s organic matter. Pouring on ammonia (toxic), herbicides and pesticides reduce biodiversity that is key to soil quality and productivity. Clearing of rainforest in Brasil and Argentina has made them the world’s biggest exporter of soybeans (and they also grow maize). Clearing rainforest is changing the rainfall patterns since transpiration by trees re-cycles much of the water from Atlantic trade winds. Two poor rainfall years in a row in SA had already pushed corn and soybean prizes up before the Ukraine supply shock. The scenario of quadrupled prices might not be far off. Prices of soybeans and corn have roughly doubled so far. It usually takes three things to turn a problem into a disaster. If we get bad growing weather in the U.S. (too little water in California, maybe too much or too little or both in the Midwest) food could become a problem for poor countries. 800 million are already stunted by malnutrition.

  4. It’s insane to be dependent on imports for something as crucial as food. And yet here we are…

    In Italy, the agricultural lobby is asking for fallow land to be cultivated, excess wildlife populations to be culled, and local bans on pesticides to be lifted. Because “war in Ukraine”. Italy does have a food security problem due to a lack of arable land, even though everyone I’ve ever spoken to refuses to believe it, but it should be solved by reducing our population and the footprint of our cities and infrastructure, not by attacking whatever is left of nature. Food prices seem to be going up – it’s either that, or farmers quitting because they cannot cover the costs.

    My sheep, donkeys and mare are grazing a neighbour’s lawn, and have been for a quite a while already. On the one hand, he’s very nice to let me do that, and I try to pay back by cutting his mowing expenses and providing abundant manure for his garden – he told me he used to get it for free, but with the current squeeze it’s become much harder (the neighbours are all eyeing my manure lately). On the other hand, it always strikes me as deeply wrong that a single person can have as a personal backyard enough land to feed a dozen people…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.