Press play to listen to this article
Don’t say you weren’t warned.
World leaders are scrambling to contain a food crisis spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but experts say that their response is gravely flawed as it repeats the failures of a broken model, setting countries up for similar crises in the future.
They believe that as policymakers look to simply farm their way out of the crisis, they are over-relying on a few countries and a handful of companies to feed the world, leaving them ill-prepared for future shocks. More than a decade after the world emerged from the 2008 world food crisis — similarly brought on by a combination of rising oil prices, drought and trade restrictions imposed by panicked governments, including Ukraine — food experts are urging policymakers to rethink what we eat and how we grow it.
In fact, they say that the West’s response to the current crisis — which includes allowing farmers to grow on protected land — is already missing the mark, especially since farmers’ heavy reliance on fertilizers and resource-intensive crops are adding to climate change.
“So much of this EU and U.S response is about doubling down on a system that’s broken,” said Sophia Murphy, executive director at the IATP, a U.S.-based think tank.
That response, from international bodies like the G7 and the OECD, also includes earmarking millions for food aid and hashing out strategies to both get Ukraine’s besieged grains back into global trade circuits and for Western countries to farm more grain themselves.
In its food security plan launched late March, the EU said boosting production to cover the shortfalls of Ukrainian crops — wheat in particular — was “fundamental.” Failure to do so, it warned, risked precipitating a major hunger crisis in countries in North Africa and in the Middle East, which largely depend on food imports and where many countries were already struggling before the recent hike in food prices.
But indigenous and civil society members of the U.N.’s Committee of World Food Security (CFS), an expert body focusing on local food production and security policies, said that the current crisis is not a sign of production shortages but rather of systemic factors including a heavy reliance on fertilizers and fossil fuels; twin COVID and energy crises; more frequent climate disasters; and power to distribute food concentrated in the hands of only a few companies.
The crisis, Murphy said, “is ultimately about not being able to afford the food that’s there — it’s really not that there is an absolute scarcity.”
Murphy said that governments did not learn their lesson from the 2008 crisis: that the problem is not that there isn’t enough food.
Despite sticking to the policy to produce more, the number of hungry people in the world continues to rise. “It is contradictory that there are indeed huge numbers of people still going hungry around the world,” said Hanna Saarinen, a food policy expert at Oxfam. “This points to quite profound issues in the food system and to how many people are dependent on this fragile system.”
As the crisis picks up pace, Murphy said countries must avoid rebuilding a system of over-reliance on “too few countries, too few companies [and] too few grains.”
Half of the world’s agricultural production is dominated by just four main crops: sugar cane, wheat, corn and rice. They’re all exported by only a handful of countries and traded by just four multinationals. Known as the ABCD of food due to their initials, these four companies — Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus— wield disproportionate power in global food distribution and have raked in “tremendous” gains from the price surges on grain markets, according to S&P Commodity Insights.
While the most vulnerable countries and humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme do need emergency supplies in the short term, Murphy said policymakers should focus on addressing the outsized role that a few big exporters play over the food security of low-income countries.
The supply system has been built in such a way that over two dozen countries depend on a combination of only Russia and Ukraine for at least a third of their wheat. In some countries like Lebanon and Egypt, that figure is 80 percent, while Eritrea last year sourced all of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.
So when a crisis strikes, this configuration leaves poorer countries in a bind, as big traders look to sell whatever food stocks remain to the highest bidder — which often tends not to be cash-strapped countries like Lebanon and Somalia.
“That’s what is so devastating about the crisis, it shows you how few choices Lebanon and Egypt have — all their eggs were in one basket,” Murphy said. She also said impacted countries should not see this as a “minor and short-lived disruption,” but as a chance to look at all their options. “Egypt’s ecosystems allow a lot of variety — lentils, horticulture. It’s also about having more suppliers in the market, too.”
She added: “Lebanon shouldn’t be importing 80 percent of their wheat. There’s other food to eat that’s more nutritious. If Ukraine can’t plant their wheat, we would like to see other food being grown, it doesn’t have to be wheat and it doesn’t have to be on marginal land in the EU.”
That calls for a major rethink of how the world is fed.
Even at times when there isn’t drought or high food prices, many countries in Africa are flooded by cheap imports, often from the EU and U.S., which run local farmers out of business and weaken countries’ ability to respond to shocks. Magdalena Ackermann, a food security expert with the CFS, said that such trade-oriented policies have “crushed the resilience of regions or the ability of countries to rely on local production.”
Murphy, from IATP, also said that to stay afloat, farmers in Northern Africa are increasingly shifting to water-intensive and high-value farming of fruits and vegetables destined for Europe, “and some of that is at the expense of staple crops as well.”
Ackermann said that countries need to diversify what they produce so that they can rely more on their own farms and food networks. Otherwise, they risk falling back into the same trap at a time when biodiversity- and climate-related disruption is accelerating.
“This is the moment to help people and build that sustainability we are talking about, by looking at what else we could be eating and where else it could be coming from,” Murphy said.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network