Wheat is a basic diet element, Russia and Ukraine are among the biggest producers. We followed current patterns across the globe with PhD Jonas Jägermeyr
Studies from 2019 by the WHO registered a further increase of world hunger with an estimated eight hundred million people underfed. The UN reports a spike within the first year from the start of the pandemic, in 2021. On the opposite side of the spectrum, at the global scale, one point nine billion people over eighteen are overweight, with six hundred and fifty million who are obese. We spoke to Dr. Jonas Jägermeyr, who studies food systems and global food security at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, The Climate School at Columbia University, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). According to him, this is the sign of a divide that is worsening, among those who are eating too much and those who don’t have enough to survive. «the supply of food», he told Lampoon, «is not well managed».
Lampoon reporting: the current state of food security and causes
On top of this, the current conflict in Ukraine is not just about warfare. It is creating a humanitarian disaster in terms of new migration flows and internally displaced people. But importantly also further exacerbating global food insecurity. According to Jägermeyr, the conflict showcases the vulnerability of the global food system and reminds us how far we are from eradicating world hunger. Climate change had already been an issue in the context of food security pre-2020; then the pandemic, which exacerbated the severity of food insecurity for 821 million hungry people in low-income countries who – as reported by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition – already spend most of their income to eat.
9.9 percent of all people were estimated to be undernourished in 2020, up from eight point four percent in 2019: «Covid is estimated to have pushed more than a hundred million more people into hunger». At the same time, the wealth of the 10 richest people in the world increased by 413 billion dollars last year. Which is eleven times more than what the UN says is needed for its entire global humanitarian assistance. Hunger is also outpacing population growth. Inflation also contributed to the aggravation of the overall situation. Then the war in Ukraine broke out, pushing markets to further increase prices and to the disruption of the ordinary circulation of raw materials.
SDGs are failing
«The Sustainable Development Goals have set out an ambitious agenda by 2030, which is soon» says Jägermeyr, who is skeptical about their success. «In terms of eradicating hunger — that’s not going to happen». The targets proposed with the SDGs, are «increasingly beyond reach». At the moment, one of the main obstacles is market volatility. When a crisis occurs – such as Coronavirus or an armed conflict – markets are expected to tighten. Along with a fear of scarcity, prices tend to spike which «disproportionally affect the poor and countries that are dependent on food imports».
Wheat, production and costs are changing
Wheat is a key element for the human diet, constituting a major source of energy and providing proteins and vitamins. Notably B vitamins, as well as dietary fiber and phytochemicals. Put together, Russia and Ukraine make up for the largest exporter of wheat globally; exporting thirty-three percent, which cause «severe disruptions, if that supply is taken off the market». At the moment, the wheat price spikes we are witnessing in consequence of the invasion of Ukraine are largely due to speculations. «Markets are nervous and anticipate negative effects on the production later this year, already pricing in substantial wheat harvest losses».
Winter and Spring wheat
As Jägermeyr explains, there are two types of wheat: winter and spring wheat. Winter wheat is planted in the Fall, sometimes between September, October and early November. Then sits in the fields and resumes growing in the spring when it’s warm again. In Ukraine, most of the wheat is winter wheat. At the moment it is already planted in the fields and starting to grow. «So the question is how the war will affect the planting of spring crops such as maize, barely, and sunflower».
Unexploded ammunition and military debris left on fields and now growing in can also become an issue for harvestability in the fall. The risk is that plants will grow around, making them difficult to identify, which «might become an issue when you approach harvesting the field, as they may be contaminated with explosives». The other issue is with Spring wheat, which should be planted in matter of weeks: here, «the main problem is understanding whether the planting season is going to be effected» because of the war. There may be a lack of labor, machinery, seeds, and fertilizer, and a consequent difficulty to plant.
The Russian case
Spring wheat is the majority of the Russian harvest. Since the war is not on Russian territory, however, «the Russian crop season is likely not going to be affected much». The winter crops are in the fields and the spring crops started to be planted and are expected to be harvested just fine. The issue more of an economical matter: Russia has trade bans so they are not going to export any of their plants to the west, which may lead to trade diversion to China: «China will profit from that and likely increase their Russian wheat imports».
According to Jägermeyr, «this creates a very complicated pattern and we don’t really know how it will play out globally». Which, in turn, creates volatility in the markets: «in doubt, food price increases». This has already had negative effects, mainly on poor communities: «lower-income countries that import a lot of staple grains have a very difficult standing». Black Sea wheat exports largely go to Egypt and the Middle East – Lebanon for example is the largest importer from Ukraine – and that will directly affect people: if they can’t import enough wheat or they can do so only at extraordinarily high prices, people will have to pay the highest price for that.
Inputs into farming: the case of fertilizers
Every year farmers buy all of the seeds and fertilizers that they need, which is getting more and more expensive. Increases got worse recently: «even before the war in Ukraine, the price of fertilizers had tripled compared to previous years, so it’s becoming very expensive for farmers, which will result in higher food prices» creating «a precarious situation, which the war is further compounding». Adding to that, Russia is the main exporter of fertilizers, and trade bans already in place made them even less available and pricier.
Climate change: adaptation is key
As Jägermeyr explains, when it comes to global warming, it is clear that «climate change is going to affect every portion of the world in one way or another». Agriculture makes no exception and global food security is increasingly put at risk by a changing climate. Farmers will have to change and adapt their practices. The first question when approaching this matter, is observing «in what direction» changes are going.
Short and long-term effects
The complexity of the issue is twofold: «there is the question of short-term variability and extreme events, and then there is long-term, gradual change». Examples of short-term, extreme events are heat waves, like those we witnessed in Russia in 2012, in Europe in 2003, or in Canada last year. «Periods of time when it’s extraordinarily warm will affect crops. That will be more frequent and more severe under climate change». The same happens with draughts. On the other hand, gradual change differs with the varying of latitude.
«In higher latitudes (northern countries, like Russia and partly Ukraine) gradual moderate warming can be somewhat beneficial for some crops, including wheat». This is because in higher latitudes warming is less harmful than in the tropics, where crops are already closer to specific temperature thresholds. Also, wheat has the capacity to benefit from higher carbon-dioxide levels – which is the driver of climate change. For some plants, more CO2 in the air creates a fertilizing effect; leading to «higher water use efficiency of the crop and stronger crop growth». Yet the global net balance is negative. «The more south you go, the more the negative effects will come through and high-latitude potential gains cannot compensate for that».
Exacerbating the economic and livelihood divide
There is no positive collateral effect in the progressive warming up of the planet for southern agriculture. This results in a disproportionate impact on the people; with poorer nations more affected, increasing the already dramatic economic and livelihood divide. Poorer countries also have less resources to react to the severe changes. This creates a looping effect «directly linked to food security». Related to the Ukraine conflict in the short term, climate change is not necessarily a big aspect, but climate variability already is. People and markets now «look at the seasons and hope that the growing conditions are as favorable as possible to prevent crop losses which will then accelerate the whole chain of problems».
War-related solutions: avoid trade bans
Although the food security picture is complex and worrying, «there is a portfolio of things that can be done». As for the current situation in Ukraine, «the number one measure to minimize impact globally is to encourage every country to not have trade bans or precautionary stock-piling». A free flow of agricultural commodities will help stabilize prices. Conversely, «if everybody does it, we will have a very explosive situation». In the mid-term, Jägermeyr suggests diversifying imports and increasing capacities for underperforming reasons. Ethiopia for example has favorable conditions for growing wheat. These areas can be supported and expand their production.
Sustainable intensification: a way around climate change
In a changing climate, agriculture has to adapt. The possibilities are many, from changing your management practices; by planting earlier or according to the changing weather pattern, to using different cultivars or switching to different crops. In any case, in order to increase the level of global food security, the buzzword for feeding ten billion people on the planet while sustaining our ecosystem services is sustainable intensification. «A weird concept to say we need to increase productivity on current agricultural land but without dumping additional fertilizers and water on it».
As hard as it may seem, sustainable intensification is possible. «By being smarter and increasing our efficiency to the point that we maintain our ecosystem but still get more food out of it». One of the main discourses going on at the moment is the possibility of no-tillage agriculture. Putting the seeds into an undisturbed surface rather than tilling it before planting. After harvest the field is left untouched and, in the spring, seeds get planted, again without tilling. «It retains water better, it increases carbon content in the soil, helps reduce soil erosion». This system is being picked up at different rates and is appearing even across US commercial farming. The key is recognizing the ecosystem needs and not destroying it.
Vertical Farming is useful to educate consumers, not to feed the world
Other strategies are being implemented across the globe. One is Vertical Farming. According to Jägermeyr, it can be used «for other reasons than feeding the planet». To grow specific cash crops inside the city close to the consumers; some herbs, and lettuce and mushrooms could also be grown inside or on the roofs of supermarkets. «But you cannot grow maize and wheat and soy beans on a large scale. It is too energy and water-intensive to build something like that at the scale you would need to make a significant contribution». He sees VF as an asset for consumer education. For people to reconnect and learn where their food is coming from. «The consumer side is one of the biggest key elements. If the consumers don’t change their consumption patterns, shifting away from animal-based proteins, we will not get around the climate crisis anytime soon».
The role of data: ISIMIP and AgGrid
«In order to understand the bigger picture we need to abstract. Step back and create a model that can simplify reality. In a way to show big trends and see the changes that are happening; to develop pathways for a more sustainable practice». Data are at the heart. Model Intercomparison projects (-MIPs) run models run globally on supercomputers to understand larger processes. Traditionally, each research group has their own models. Everyone differs in assumptions and inputs, so they are very difficult to compare. -MIPs bring all these teams together and try to harmonize them.
«If you have ten different models that simulate the same thing, you can understand what responses, averages, uncertainties and distribution you have. So your confidence in results can become much higher». Creating the scientific bases for changing agricultural common practices. Jägermeyr works on the Global Gridded Crop Model Intercomparison Project. «We are bringing together the worldwide leading teams that run global crop models and have them run the same protocol». Two of their recent papers were on climate change. Related to food security, what happens if there is a nuclear war, and how that would indirectly affect global food security.
A climate change scientist and crop modeler. Jonas Jägermeyr studies food systems and global food security at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; The Earth Institute at Columbia University; and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). As a central initiative within AgMIP, he co-leads AgGRID and the Global Gridded Crop Model Intercomparison (GGCMI). He is also the coordinator of the agriculture sector in ISIMIP.