Despite the ongoing nightmare, it is heartening to see the strength of solidarity shown toward those caught up in this horrendous war. I am thankful every day to know that the representative of my own organisation, Compassion in World Farming, and his family on the ground in the country remain well, despite unimaginable difficulties.
The war has not only wreaked untold misery on people, it has also highlighted the knife-edge balance on which world food stocks currently teeter.
‘Apocalyptic’ was how Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, described the effect of the war in Ukraine on food prices. With world wheat prices having risen by a quarter in recent weeks, fears have been growing that the ongoing conflict could deepen cuts in shipments of food supplies from Ukraine, further hitting supplies of essential cereals and cooking oil.
Ukraine and Russia account for 29 per cent of global wheat exports and 62 per cent of sunflower oil. According to the World Bank, the invasion of Ukraine is likely to exacerbate food price inflation, particularly impacting some of the poorest and most vulnerable nations. Countries particularly dependent on Ukrainian wheat include Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Indonesia and Uganda.
‘Breadbasket of Europe’
In Ukraine itself, the United Nations has described extensive damage and loss of life in rural areas as well as key population centres, sparking fears that crops may not get planted.
The World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, usually buys around 50 per cent of its grain from Ukraine, which is known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’.
But grain exports have almost entirely shut down since the start of the invasion, the war hitting factories and farmers’ ability to work. Distribution of last year’s harvest has been affected along with the production of fresh produce this year, and perhaps in the coming years.
David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, has pleaded with Russian President Vladimir Putin to reopen Ukraine's Black Sea ports before global calamity strikes.
"Millions of people around the world will die because these ports are being blocked,” Beasley told CNN.
World produces twice as much food as needed
Helping those in need is an immediate priority. Building a truly resilient food system for the future will be a crucial next step, something likely to be hampered by interests set on using the immediate disruption as a reason for perpetuating some of the less sustainable aspects of the current food system.
Policymakers in Brussels and elsewhere are already being lobbied hard to row back on pledges to de-intensify food production; instead, to double-down on a decades-long focus on producing more wastefully and with little thought for the environment or animal welfare.
Despite the apparent scarcity, the reality is that we live in a world which produces twice as much food calories as we need – so why the sudden shortage?
A big part of the answer lies with one of the food system’s biggest ‘elephants in the room’: the grain-feeding of industrially farmed animals. Much of our wheat and other crops is fed to animals who are mostly confined in cages, crates, windowless barns or feedlots.
Intensive animal rearing, or factory farming, has put farm animals directly in competition with people for food. And people are losing out. Most of the food value of wheat and other grains in terms of both calories and protein is wasted in conversion to intensively farmed meat, milk and eggs.
For every six kilogrammes of plant protein, such as wheat and other cereals fed to farmed animals, only one kilogramme of protein on average is given back in the form of meat or other livestock products.
A mammoth problem
The UK and EU combined use 50 million tonnes of wheat a year as animal feed – three times the total amount of wheat normally exported annually by Ukraine. Not just an ‘elephant in the room’ then, but more a problem of mammoth proportions.
Globally, feeding perfectly good crops to factory farmed animals wastes enough food to feed four billion people – that’s half of humanity alive today.
Never has it been more important for the world’s leaders to place ending factory farming firmly on the agenda. If the UK alone were to end factory farming, it could free up the equivalent of half of Ukraine’s total annual wheat exports.
Put another way, factory farming deepens our dependence on grain imports that are likely to be threatened in the future.
The chances of future ‘breadbasket’ regions of the world being hit by catastrophe is likely to increase in the wake of the climate crisis, with experts warning of multiple breadbasket failures leading to global food shortages.
Taking animals out of fields and pastures and instead feeding them precious wheat and other grains indoors means we are literally wasting food and jeopardising future supplies.
Far better to keep animals out in the countryside where they can convert things we can’t eat – grass – into something we can: pasture-raised meat and other nature-friendly products.
The unprovoked war in Ukraine has brought untold misery to millions of its people; the enormity and senselessness of it can leave us feeling powerless. However, it redoubles the need to counter this darkness of conflict with the light of hope and solidarity.
It also behoves us to reset the food system and put an end to grain-guzzling factory farms. Without doing so, not only could people go hungry today, but it might well trigger new and devastating conflict tomorrow as future wars could arise over food shortages.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf