The Field Report: What the Invasion of Ukraine Means for the Food Supply | Civil Eats

The Field Report: What the Invasion of Ukraine Means for the Food Supply

From the challenge of feeding millions of refugees to rising food prices and disrupted wheat crops, the war could have an outsized impact on the food system.

IRPIN, UKRAINE - MARCH 03: A member of the Ukrainian military walks past empty shelves to collect food and other items from a grocery store to distribute to local residents on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine's major cities, including the capital Kyiv, a week after launching a large-scale invasion of the country. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

A member of the Ukrainian military walks past empty shelves to collect food and other items from a grocery store to distribute to local residents on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

April 18, 2022 update: World Central Kitchen CEO posted on Twitter that a Russian missile strike destroyed the group’s kitchen in Kharkiv on April 16, injuring four staff members. The next day, Chef José Andrés confirmed and shared that the team had already opened a new kitchen in the city.

At 4 a.m. on Tuesday, March 8, two World Central Kitchen (WCK) employees shared a video from Medyka, Poland, on the border of Ukraine. Temperatures were well below freezing as families, some of whom had been traveling for days, poured over the border. “We’ve been out all night serving hot potato and chicken stew to folks walking across,” said a WCK worker identified as Dan, as refugees boarded buses in the background to continue their arduous journeys.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than 2 million people—half of them children—have fled their homes in search of safety. Now refugees, they’re in desperate need of food and water. At the same time, bombing has left tens of thousands of Ukrainians who remain in the country without food, water, or power to cook with. Homes, kitchens, and lives are destroyed. Families are sheltering in subway tunnels, far from their pantries and refrigerators. Many in the southern town of Mariupol have been trapped for more than a week without food, water, or electricity.

Food production in the country is in shambles. As of Monday, the largest industrial poultry company was still operating, but distribution routes had been disrupted. Dairy farmers continue to feed and milk their cows, even though sales of milk have been cut in half due to supply chain disruptions. As planting season approaches for grains and other crops, farmers are reporting that they may not be able to get seeds in the ground. Expected shipments of seeds and diesel needed to run equipment have not arrived and rockets overhead inspire fear of working in the fields.

WCK started serving hot meals to refugees crossing the border into Poland within hours of the initial invasion. They have since set up a central commissary kitchen and established meal distribution points across six countries in the region, including Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and Romania. Like it did with restaurants all over the U.S. when COVID-19 caused shutdowns in 2020 and communities struggled to access food, the group is also partnering with local restaurants, caterers, and food trucks within Ukraine. The organization estimates it is now helping to distribute 60,000 meals per day.

And as soon as founder chef José Andrés announced WCK would activate in response to the invasion, the U.S. culinary world responded with #ChefsforUkraine. This coming weekend, a two-day event called the Belly Full Pizza Pop Up will feature more than a dozen of Washington D.C.’s top chefs to raise funds that will go to helping WCK feed Ukrainian refugees. Paola Velez—who co-founded the intergroup Bakers Against Racism during the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd—recently launched Bake for Ukraine. An initiative dubbed #CookforUkraine was launched in the United Kingdom with funds going to relief organization UNICEF, and chefs like Nigella Lawson in London are participating. Many other restaurants, bars, and bakeries in the U.S. and around the globe are raising money to feed Ukrainians and expressing solidarity by selling blue and yellow macarons and traditional Ukrainian foods.

And while getting adequate nourishment to victims of the invasion is the most pressing food issue, the global nature of today’s food system means that Russia’s actions in Ukraine will impact how and what people all over the world eat in complex ways, for a long time.

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Impacts on the Global Food Supply. Together, Russia and Ukraine’s food exports account for about 12 percent of the calories traded globally. In addition to significant exports of sunflower oil, barley, and corn, the two countries provide close to 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports. Yet at this point, Ukraine’s grain supply is effectively offline. Ukraine’s government also banned exports of rye, barley, buckwheat, millet, sugar, salt, and meat through the end of the year. While wheat exports mainly happen in the fall and therefore the supply has not yet been interrupted, prices have increased 55 percent in Europe. Last week, commodity wheat prices shot up to a level not seen since 2008.

Experts are especially concerned about how price increases—and expected shortages later this year—within the global grain market could increase the number of people going hungry around the world, especially when combined with the impacts of the pandemic. Many countries with high rates of food insecurity—including Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt in the Middle East/North Africa, Indonesia and Bangladesh in South Asia, and Sudan and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa—depend heavily on Ukrainian and Russian wheat.

The U.S. is more of a grain producer than importer, but ripple effects are still certain to hit pieces of the food system here as well. For example, as Forbes reported, some organic chicken producers rely on organic feed corn from Ukraine, which could be disrupted. Organic grain demand has long outpaced supply in the U.S. And fertilizer prices have been spiking, as Russia is an important producer of fertilizer and some of its components.

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And Putin Could Use All This to His Advantage . . . according to a Politico op-ed, penned by experts who work for a consulting firm that specializes in resource supply chains, Russia’s taking control of Ukraine’s wheat and corn supplies could have long-term geopolitical consequences. Not only could Russian leader Vladimir Putin exploit low-resource countries’ dependence on those grain imports to increase Russian power, he could also use the increased grain supply to strengthen Russia’s growing bond with China. China is one of the world’s largest grain importers and demand there is growing; at the end of February, it lifted previous restrictions and agreed to import wheat produced anywhere in Russia.

Beyond the Fencerow? In the U.S., Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he did not expect the invasion to significantly impact domestic food prices due to America’s “tremendous production capacity.” And although Reuters reported the Biden administration was considering a policy tweak that would redirect corn currently being used to make biofuels into the food supply, an administration official denied it.

At the same time, University of Illinois agricultural economist Scott Irwin set off a debate when he suggested, on Twitter, that in response to global grain disruptions, the USDA should allow farmers to plant crops this year on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP pays farmers not to plant on certain parcels of land to prevent overproduction, and, primarily, to boost environmental outcomes such as curbing habitat and soil loss and sequestering carbon.

On Tuesday, Senator John Boozman (R-Arkansas) voiced support for the idea. A similar conversation emerged in Europe, where the CEO of a French agricultural company said the European Union should allow farmers to plant on land set aside to meet environmental goals, arguing that “the Ukraine crisis showed the need for the E.U.’s executive to go back on its so-called Farm to Fork proposals.”

But agriculture experts in the U.S. said planting on CRP land wouldn’t have a significant impact on the grain supply, anyway. And others pointed out that on the heels of the latest U.N. climate report, which showed increasing disruptions to the food supply due to climate change, abandoning climate goals in the name of short-term production gains would be short-sighted.

“‘Till and plant a bunch of CRP ground to fight the Russians’ is exactly what we don’t need right now. USDA should not participate in this GOP campaign to destroy habitat, further pressure fertilizer shortages, cost farmers guaranteed income, and increase GHG pollution,” agriculture and rural life writer Bryce Oates wrote on Twitter. Last Friday, USDA press secretary Kate Waters told reporters there “are no immediate discussions” happening at the agency around allowing planting on CRP land.

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Big Food Put Profits over People . . . Until Pressured. American companies have been pulling out of Russia at a quick clip to protest its invasion of a sovereign nation and its bombing of civilians. Microsoft and Apple, Disney and Sony, Ikea and H&M, and even oil companies including BP and Exxon have ceased operations in the country. But fast food companies have taken longer to follow suit—if they’ve done it at all. Some, like Papa John’s and Yum Brands, which owns KFC and Pizza Hut, say their Russian restaurants are mainly franchises, so they don’t have the power to shut them down. As of Tuesday, some major businesses finally pulled the plug on doing business in Russia: Starbucks served its last latte, and McDonald’s, which owns the vast majority of its 847 restaurants in Russia, also finally called it quits on flipping Big Macs in Moscow. Then Coca-Cola and PepsiCo joined in as calls to boycott companies have been increasing on Twitter and around the world.

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We send out our calls for peace, for the safety of those who will suffer most in war, and for the wisdom of world leaders. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and their efforts to remain a free and democratic nation. Some meaningful ways to consider supporting the people there now, particularly a free press, are listed here, here, and here. As noted, World Central Kitchen has people on the ground in Poland, Romania, and inside Ukraine, and you can donate to support their efforts to feed people in this humanitarian crisis.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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