‘Leaders are getting scared’: Putin’s war and La Niña could set off global food emergency

The destruction of Ukraine’s black earth farm belt is even worse than feared. Half of this year’s output will be lost to the world. A global shortage of fertilisers largely caused by Putin’s war will depress yields across the globe.

This might be manageable were it not for everything else going wrong for global food supply. Atmospheric scientists fear that La Niña global weather, already in an extended “double dip”, will morph into a rare triple dip event. This would extend the drought in Latin America’s grain regions, as well as wreaking havoc in the Prairies, and as far away as East Africa and central Asia.

Utter destruction: A Ukrainian army officer inspects a grain warehouse shelled by Russian forces. Russia’s war on Ukraine combined with another bout of La Niña could set off a global food emergency.Credit:Getty Images

“There is a better than 50 per cent chance of a third La Niña, and that has only happened twice in the last 40 years,” said Eric Snodgrass, weather wizard at the agro-industrial giant Nutrien.

La Niña events are caused by unusually cold water in the tropical Pacific, which distorts the Jet Stream at mid-latitudes. “It tends to cause drought in the big global agricultural baskets like the US farm belt. If La Niña maintains its grip, it’ll shave yields by a few bushels per acre and that can have a global impact when markets are tight as they are today,” he said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) this week published an alert on the world’s “hunger hotspots”, identifying 20 countries facing a critical food emergency (phase 4) or already in catastrophe (phase 5) and “projected to experience starvation and death”.

‘Hunger hotspots’

It is watching with horror as producing countries begin to ban farm exports in a Hobbesian dash for national food security. Indonesia has prohibited palm oil shipment until further notice. “This really is a stab in the back because they did it without any consultation, and they are going to be hosting the G20 this year,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, the FAO’s former head of agro-markets.

Just weeks ago India was talking of plugging the Ukrainian wheat gap with bumper exports, but the most extreme heat since records began in 1901 has shattered that dream. India is now itself in trouble and mulling a wheat export ban. ” Leaders in every country are getting scared. But it’ll be a disaster if more countries do this,” Abbassian said.

The FAO’s World Food Price index reached a record high in real terms in March, surpassing the extremes of both the 1970s commodity shock and the grain price spiral from 2010-2013, which triggered (but did not cause) the Arab Spring.

Global staples have risen 23 per cent in a year. Prices could go higher yet and stay there. “The real danger is the 2022-2023 season, and it will bring down governments,” Abbassian said.

[Putin’s] imperial misadventure has probably left several hundred million people facing chronic malnutrition. Some will starve to death.

Ukraine normally supplies 11 per cent of the world’s traded wheat, 15 per cent of barley, 17 per cent of corn, and 46 per cent of sunflower and safflower seed, which is why supermarkets have imposed limits on vegetable oils in France, the UK and elsewhere. Ukraine and Russia together supply 12 per cent of total calories traded globally.

The plight of Ukraine’s farms is spelled out in a report by the country’s agriculture ministry. Some 30 per cent of Ukraine’s land is occupied, or unsafe, or too damaged for planting. Russian forces left mines across Sumy and Chernihiv as they withdrew.

They have deliberately destroyed grain storage silos, fuel depots, and farm machinery – or stolen it where they can. One farmer said he had tracked his vanished Land Cruiser using GPS to Belarus.

The farm workforce is down from 500,000 to 200,000 partly due to conscription. Yields will have crashed because of fertiliser costs. Growers are expecting to cut use by 30 per cent to 40 per cent. Fuel is in critical shortage. Farmers often handed over reserves to help the army.

La Nina has rattled the world’s food supply chain.Credit:Nick Moir

The report by New AG International said Ukraine would normally export 6 million to 7 million tonnes of grain a month through Black Sea ports. These are blockaded by the Black Sea Fleet. Stocks have quadrupled to 20 million tonnes and can no longer be stored.

Rapeseed spoils if moisture levels rise above 10 per cent. The internal price of corn has collapsed by 40 per cent, discouraging farmers from planting. It is a vicious circle.

Exports by train are slow because Ukraine’s railway gauge is incompatible with Poland. Some grain is getting through the Romanian port of Constanta. The ministry says it will take 18 to 24 months to clear the backlog. “Honest to say, it’s a disaster,” was the verdict.

Fertiliser crunch

The Kremlin has twisted the knife further by weaponising fertiliser exports. It froze foreign sales of ammonium nitrate during the planting season, purportedly to help its own farmers. Russia accounts for 45 per cent of global traded supply.

The fertiliser crunch is storing up trouble across the world. The International Fertiliser Development Centre says it will cut corn and rice yields by a third in West Africa this year.

The North America fertiliser index tracked by Green Markets has risen almost fourfold from pre-pandemic levels. Farmers are moving down the “fertiliser curve” sacrificing output to maximise commercial return. The Brazilian soy giant SLC Agricola says it plans to cut its usage by a quarter this year. The rule of thumb is that this will lower yields by 15 per cent.

The immediate unknown is whether this year’s La Niña spoils the coming harvest of US and Canadian grains. The effect so far has been to cause severe drought across the western farm belt, and too much rain on the eastern side. The next six weeks will be critical.

The larger unknown is whether La Niña will hang on for a third year, and if so, how much it might weaken with age. The risk is that it blights yet another season of grain and seed production in Latin America. Southern Brazil lost 18 per cent of its soybean crop last year from drought.

So far, we have not seen a fatal rush into corn ethanol and biofuels ro replace oil, diverting edible grains into transport. But it is hard to hold back the tide with Brent crude at $110 a barrel and heading for $150 or more if the West succeeds in constricting Russian oil cargoes to Asia with curbs on shippers and insurers. The grain used to fill the tank of an American SUV is enough to sustain a human being for a year.

Rich OECD countries can buy their way out of the food crisis, but only by outbidding poorer grain-importing countries – many having to buy dollarised global grain with badly devalued currencies. “I don’t think it is going to be some tremendous famine. It’ll be a silent crisis of undernourishment,” said Mr Abbassian.

The very poorest in the FAO’s hunger hotspots may be pushed over the edge. Some 161 million people were already facing “acute food insecurity” last year. The figure will be much higher now. Some of the vulnerable states are conflict zones: the numbers in phase 4 “emergency” reach 8.7 million in Afghanistan, 5.4 million in the Congo (DCR), 5.1 million in Yemen, or 4.3 million in Ethiopia.

Others are the perennial victims of bad government and bad luck. The proportion in acute insecurity has doubled to 35 per cent in Honduras over the last two years, and risen to 46 per cent in Haiti.

Putin has much to answer for. He may not match the 20th century famine tallies of Stalin and Mao, but his imperial misadventure has probably left several hundred million people facing chronic malnutrition. Some will starve to death.

Those countries in the global South that still refuse to condemn his actions out of reflexive anti-Western ideology might reflect on this.

Telegraph, London

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