The hellish war in Ukraine has set loose another apocalyptic horseman: famine. The swiftness of many deaths by combat has obscured the many more deaths that may come slowly, not from war but from the interaction of markets for food and oil.
Despite an emerging transition away from fossil fuels, the force that still drives the flowering grains of the world's breadbaskets is oil. Oil still powers the engines that plant and harvest, the fertilizer that makes grain grow and the trucks and barges and ships that deliver food to the hungry.
These markets together define the capacity of much of the world to feed itself.
Nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is mainly produced from ammonium nitrate derived from natural gas. Other petroleum-based products fuel herbicides and pesticides protecting crops from yield losses due to weeds and insect infestation.
Disruptions in supply chains thus affect food grains directly but also create delivery issues with oil-based plant nutrients and chemicals.
While American aid to Ukraine has increased from hundreds of millions of dollars to a proposed $33 billion in military and humanitarian assistance, and while NATO's resolve has stiffened in the face of Russian aggression and atrocity, none of this responds directly to the combined food and energy challenges that are leading to famine.
Russia's invasion has also triggered a set of policies which, taken together, compound and worsen the lives of hundreds of millions of people struggling with food insecurity, especially children.
Russia and Ukraine combined account for about 30% of global wheat exports, roughly equivalent to the United States and Canada. Ukraine also accounts for half of global sunflower oil exports, a major source of cooking oil around the world. Russia and Belarus are major global fertilizer exporters, and Black Sea ports are a major source of foods and fertilizers for African, Asian and Middle Eastern destinations.
Russia's invasion has effectively blocked these critical supplies, causing scarcity, spiking prices and exacerbating food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people who even in good times spend half or more of their meager incomes on food. They have no cushion for the price increases they now face.
Poor farmers struggling for self sufficiency will also lack the fertilizers they need to feed their own families this year and next.
Not only will millions be malnourished or worse because of this war; their suffering will spill into the streets, causing civil unrest across many countries.
In total, these indirect casualties will number in the tens or hundreds of millions. Unfortunately, many countries, including China, have already reacted by banning exports of food and fertilizer, which will only serve to destabilize markets further.
In late April, the World Bank reported that trade disruptions due to the war in Ukraine would keep commodity prices high and rising into 2024.
We should act now to avoid the worst of these consequences. Many Americans may not want to hear this difficult message, and it will take time to come to terms with it, just as it has taken time to formulate our collective response to the Russian invasion.
Among the actions needed by the U.S. and its Western and Asian allies:
- Suspend requirements to blend biofuels, freeing up corn and soybeans and the fertilizers used to produce them for use in producing food for the world's hungry and starving.
- Permit temporary use of Conservation Reserve acres here and set-aside acres in Western Europe to produce crops, helping restore more adequate food reserves, especially where these acres are not protecting lands highly vulnerable to erosion or flooding.
- Avoid export taxes and controls that divert grain from malnourished people to livestock feed, unwinding the 40-plus protectionist actions taken since the start of the war, including China's hoarding of corn stocks and Indonesia's limits on palm-oil exports.
- Provide funding for a global "food-financing facility" to help poor countries maintain critical food imports by borrowing on easy terms.
- Maintain and expand our domestic SNAP, WIC, school meals and other feeding programs to ensure the nutritional needs of our own people.
Agricultural production is among America's strongest technological suits and greatest powers. In taking these actions, the U.S. can regain a position of global respect and influence beyond military might and reinforce its ties to allies. By showing what it can help do for others in the face of the current food crisis, America can also begin to retrieve its international legitimacy and leadership.
Carlisle Ford Runge is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Robbin S. Johnson is a former vice president for corporate affairs at Cargill.