Buckle up folks – Putin’s war on Ukraine is catapulting us into a global food crisis. In the breadbasket of the world, he shells cattle, farms, silos, and warehouses, confiscates tractors to pull his tanks out of the mud, and steals machinery for barricades. In the south, his army commands the peasants in the vast grain fields around the Black Sea: “Go out into the fields to sow? No problem guys. If we see the cars, we’ll shoot you.” The peasants watch the same army tour the theaters of war of rape, torture and what the Ukrainian president calls genocide and know it’s no joke. Still, they go and plant what they can, amid gunfire and grenades.
Sunflower sowing began in less volatile regions to the west, hampered by shortages of gasoline and diesel, as most of Ukraine’s fuel came from the invader and his henchman Belarus; the Black Sea is closed to alternatives. This affects international access to grain. The World Food Program said this week that 4.5 million tons of it “just lay there,” inaccessible and unusable, in occupied ports in Ukraine. Work is in progress on rail alternatives for a European “grain bridge”.
Together, Ukraine and Russia provide the world with a third of its wheat and grains, a fifth of its corn, the vast majority of its sunflower seeds and its edible oil derivatives. So when farmers around Kherson and Mykolaiv don’t plant, the prices of global staples skyrocket, barren fields become battlegrounds for the world’s poorest. After Putin’s invasion, the World Food Program warned on Twitter about the role of conflict in hunger: “There are already 283 million people marching toward hunger, 45 million are knocking on the door of famine.” In his statement, CEO David Beasley was unequivocal and said: “The world cannot afford another conflict to increase the number of hungry people.”
While some in the EU and UK are already skipping meals to feed their children, most are feeling the pain of food prices in their pockets. And it is chronic pain. According to the World Bank, we are now in the biggest commodity shock since the 1970s, with changes in food production and consumption patterns keeping prices “historically high” through the end of 2024. Last week she warned that “in the event of a prolonged war or additional sanctions against Russia, prices could be even higher and more volatile than currently forecast”.
An ongoing conflict is becoming more and more likely. The world faces the third month of a war that the Kremlin thought would be largely decided within three days. Ukrainians are returning home in the long run, embassies and missions are preparing to reopen.
Here in Ireland we watch the war on our cell phones or televisions and if possible put extra pasta or flour in the shopping cart. Workers rocked by gas bills are working overtime, diving into savings, vacation pay, tiptoeing to parents, in-laws, charities and food banks. In that paper, Laura Lynott recently wrote of how steaks and crab claws are disappearing from Dublin restaurant menus – rising energy and fertilizer prices are making them too expensive to source. War has the dining crowd watch his wallets.
I know I wasn’t alone as I saw the red apples being scattered at Kramatorsk’s peeled train station and wondered who bought, sold and grew them for this journey that was never made. The fact that many in Ukraine are fleeing to their vegetable cellars has its own life-giving resonance: new security in old food. Climate and biodiversity emergencies aside, the crisis of Putin’s war makes it time to examine our own food: what we buy, eat, waste, who grows it, how it’s paid and treated.
Even before the war, Irish vegetable farmers withdrew from the market, energy and fertilizer costs put pressure on them in production, and low prices were enough for them to sell their produce in the supermarkets. This month we begin to emerge from the traditional famine season, that period between sowing and harvest when food is scarce.
While spring vegetables are vital for self-sufficiency and communities, in developed countries we drive our 4x4s to the supermarket, buy all groceries under the sun and by the sea, most of it out of season. Grapes flown 1,000km to be mummified in an Irish fridge? Guilty. But many are now growing their own food in their garden, window box or balcony, while others are headed for the joyful throwback of an allotment plantation. There’s nothing better than your own potatoes, beans, radishes, cabbage and tomatoes. Community and guerrilla vegetable growing have their place, and any new development should have allotments for renters and owners.
With Wheat and Odessa in the news, thousands devoured Edmund de Waal’s best-selling memoir The rabbit with amber eyes will automatically think of the bankers and philanthropists, the Ephrussis, their glittering villas in Vienna and Paris; the new gold in their vaults deposited by the old gold of the Ukrainian wheat and corn exported to the Black Sea by their ancestors. Living gold that the world cannot do without. The Ukrainian government says that despite the invasion, the country has managed against all odds in record plantings. But with wheat and sunflower seeds already rotting in storage, access to the crops will be crucial.
Like Ireland, Ukraine has the history and epigenetics of famine. Globally, Putin’s war will determine how many of the 45 million people “knocking on the door of famine” will be admitted.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/putin-might-yet-reap-what-he-has-sown-but-ukraine-cant-even-plant-crucial-crops-41615605.html Putin may yet reap what he has sown, but Ukraine cannot even grow essential crops