Friday, March 1, 2024

Food for thought

A Ukrainian serviceman guards a cargo ship in the Black Sea port city of Odessa.

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It is late, but at long last, the world is waking up.

“Conflict in Ukraine fuels uncertainty for agriculture”

“Ukraine War to compound hunger, poverty in Africa, experts say”

“Rising prices increase alarm for food security and political stability”  

These are just a few of the newspaper headlines from recent weeks, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has placed the issue of food security firmly on the world’s agenda. For the first time in decades, the media around the world is full of stories about the increase in commodity prices and the fear of increased hunger and poverty in Africa. 

This is not, however, a new threat. Food security has been at risk due to ever-increasing population growth and the ongoing crisis around global warming.  The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine have merely exacerbated food uncertainty. In less than three years, shipping prices have increased by five times. 

Ukraine and Russia are responsible for about 30% of global wheat exports and more than 60% of sunflower oil. It is no surprise that a major war in one of the world’s major “breadbaskets” has therefore spelt disaster for the already diminishing global grain stocks. This has resulted in an astronomical rise in wheat prices, and a further shortage of agricultural inputs. 

The cost of oats, wheat, corn and soybeans have all risen dramatically, as have logistics and transportation prices, oil and input costs, not to mention long delays in supply. All of this disrupts world food security, which – as ever – disproportionately impacts countries in the developing world.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that Ukraine will lose 20-30% of its wheat, corn and sunflower. Some experts claim that Ukraine’s wheat exports will be reduced to six or seven million tonnes, compared to the expected 24 million before the war. This is the result of Russia cutting off most rail lines connecting major wheat-producing areas to Black Sea ports. The war is also impacting crops such as soybeans, as Ukraine is also a major exporter of vegetable oil. The decline in agricultural production and the sharp increase in food and energy prices are expected to last for several years.

This is not a fleeting crisis. It’s here to stay.

In the short term, however, countries heavily dependent on food imports will inevitably be most at risk. With an increasing gap between supply and demand, there are notably sharp increases in basic food items, including dairy products, eggs, and poultry, as well as input costs, particularly fertilizers, seeds, and other chemicals. In the developing world, this is already being felt by the most vulnerable in society. 

In the long term, sustainable agricultural development projects have the potential to replace imports or even generate exports in these countries which are currently so vulnerable. Such projects, underpinned by cutting-edge irrigation and data-management technologies will become more attractive both to the public and private sectors. As a result, governments themselves will need to be more willingly involved in agricultural infrastructure investment, green innovation in the fields of climate-tech and food-tech (including with sovereign guarantees), and other financial and technological means that help ensure food security. There is an increasing awareness that countries can no longer be fully dependent on imports for essential food needs.  

It is essential that the world acts now. By using cutting-edge agriculture R&D, we can create and implement innovative farming solutions for the future of agriculture, ensuring that the world’s population is no longer at risk of falling victim to food insecurity. An emphasis must be placed on domestic cultivation, the establishment of data-driven agriculture farms and production centers which meet a country’s specific needs and leverages local advantages, while making use of available natural resources (land, water and climate).

Utilizing technology and innovative means, the products must then be efficiently processed stored, managed and marketed locally, and – only if possible – also exported. To achieve this, industrial facilities and logistics centers must be built in line with 21st-century best practices, focusing on food-processing technologies, advanced livestock production, feed and food mills, and super-efficient packing houses. These progressive processes must always be complemented by ongoing professional training for local farmers in order to secure long-term, endemic food security.

I have seen this firsthand through Mitrelli’s partnership with the President of Senegal in the brand new “Agropole” project whose cornerstone ceremony will take place in early August this year. Such initiatives not only instil hope and demonstrate vision – they are simply vital to our survival on this planet.

Time is short but the need is great, and the reward even greater. Food is quite literally essential for human existence. It is tragic that it has taken the war in Ukraine to turn the spotlight on this issue. Food insecurity did not start with Russia’s invasion and it won’t go away when the war eventually comes to an end. Only through a commitment to dramatic and innovative change can we guarantee food security for all. 

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