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How to avoid food becoming Putin’s next weapon

This is an Inside Track long read. A shorter version of this post was published by The Independent.

Putin’s wars don’t just happen on the battlefield. The invasion of Crimea was accompanied by a near doubling of the price Gazprom charged Ukraine for gas. The invasion of the rest of Ukraine this year followed a summer in which Russia sharply curtailed European gas sales, depleting EU gas storage during the coldest time of the year. As the invasion drags on, it’s increasingly clear that the Kremlin may be using food, and not just energy, as leverage in its war.

It’s now evident that the harvest and export of food from both Ukraine and Russia will be disrupted for at least a year, possibly longer. Together they represent a fifth of global grain exports.

It is a disaster on all fronts: Ukraine’s farmers are hiding diesel from pillaging Russian soldiers in a desperate bid to keep their tractors running. The Black Sea has been mined, interrupting grain shipments. Russia has banned food exports, even to its ex-Soviet Eurasian Economic Union partners. Russian tugboats are stealing ships full of grain from Ukrainian ports. Food prices have never been higher, risking food riots in Africa and inflation everywhere. In an act of extraordinary cruelty, Russia is even bombing Ukrainian food warehouses to starve its people into submission.

In the face of this, it is only natural to think that we in the west must turn to the plough to keep the world fed, and to show Putin he can’t intimidate us. Agribusiness lobbyists are using the Ukraine war to argue that the EU should ditch its green farming reforms in favour of more production. Republicans in the US are calling for the federal ‘conservation reserve’ – land set aside for nature – to be turned over to intensive agriculture. In times of war, we must sacrifice nature to feed people.

This feels intuitive, but it is completely wrong: wrecking nature across Europe and America to replace Ukrainian and Russian grain exports is the worst route to food security. Because of the time lag in ploughing and the lower grade land that a ‘dig for victory’ approach would bring into production, it might not even work.

Here are four reasons why, and an outline of a much smarter approach that will prevent Putin from using food as a weapon of war:

1. Nobody starves from lack of food, they starve from lack of money
Global stockpiles of grains are healthy, around 15 per cent higher than in 2011. Global food production in 2022 is projected to be higher than 2021. Per capita food supply, globally, is over 2,800 kcal per person per day, which is more than enough for everyone. Of course, Russia and Ukraine grow around a sixth of global grain, but even if neither country grew any grain at all, the world would still have over 2,600 kcal per person per day.

However, in low income countries, where around a tenth of the world’s population live, people have a little under 1,800 kcal per day. How can we make sense of this discrepancy? The clue is in the label: low-income. People in these countries can’t afford food, even when there’s plenty to go around. Providing enough money to feed people priced out of food by the war in Ukraine is cheap: the FAO’s ‘severe scenario’ for the Ukraine war sees 13 million at risk of undernourishment because of higher prices. Providing three meals per day of emergency food aid for these people would cost under $7 billion per year, or around a quarter of Europe’s spending on pet food per year. We can afford to feed the world without producing a single extra ear of corn.

2. Prices are high because of waste
So why are prices high if there’s plenty of food? Put simply, it’s because of waste, but not just the food waste that ends up in the bin: waste at every stage of the food chain.

For example, artificial nitrogen fertiliser is now an essential part of the food system: it provides the yields that maintain the diets that feed half the global population. Russia and Ukraine are large fertiliser exporters, and fertiliser prices have more than doubled since Russia invaded. The immediate response is to think that we need more fertiliser, but half the fertiliser applied to fields is, quite literally, wasted. It is washed off the soil and into rivers, destroying biodiversity. The best farms waste very little nitrogen and have the same yields as wasteful farms. The difference is in how smart, not how hard, we farm.

But the biggest sources of waste are how we choose to use crops. The most egregious example is biofuels. A third of the US maize crop is turned into biofuels, in a process that is worse for the climate than burning fossil fuels. It’s a fair estimate that that crop could feed half a billion people if we fed it to people instead of cars. Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger has crunched the numbers: if the US and Europe halved their grain-based ethanol production, it would replace all of Ukraine’s exports.

The other huge source of waste is meat. Let’s dispense with the pantomime carnivore vs vegan debate: the reality is that we in the west eat double the protein we need to be healthy. This over consumption is hugely wasteful: 85 per cent of the UK’s food land footprint is for meat and milk, but this provides just a third of our food. Animals consume a lot of food to turn into a small amount of meat. Just looking at crops shows how out of balance we are: over half of the cereals in the UK are fed to animals. In Germany, it’s 70 per cent. In Canada, it’s 80 per cent. This matters. England’s 2019 wheat crop, if it had been fed to people, could have provided 2,500kcal per person per day for 63 million people, using a little under 20 per cent of English farmland.

Globally, we harvest 5,200 kcal per person per day as crops, but after feeding animals and biofuels, we end up with 40 per cent less nutrition for people, even after accounting for the milk and meat produced. Grain is expensive not because it’s scarce, but because we feed most of it to cars and cows (and pigs and chickens, but mostly cows).

3. There is no point digging for victory
The most pernicious food security myths relate to the second world war. In the UK, we believe we fed the nation by ‘digging for victory’ and the food security threat that matters is a blockade caused by u-boats. Both are untrue.

The u-boat myth makes people believe that food security is about national borders. But food is globally traded, and the unprecedented sanctions on Russia rightly exempt food. Just like oil and gas, producing more domestically won’t lower prices: prices are set by global markets. Growing more here may mean farmers earn more but, to lower prices, they would have to produce enough to create a sizeable global surplus.

Digging for victory certainly changed how the land was used: the Ploughing-Up campaign saw an extra sixth of England’s agricultural land turned over to crops. But all that ploughing didn’t produce much food: on average, food supply expanded by just 0.5 per cent per year during the second world war. This compares to an average of 2.8 per cent per year over the 15 years that followed it. This isn’t to diminish the hard effort of digging, it reflects the reality that natural capital is unevenly distributed, especially high quality soils. Even with today’s farming technology, the lowest yielding 20 per cent of farmland in England produces less than three per cent of the food grown here. Without subsidy to farm these areas, nobody would bother.

By contrast, Ukraine has around a quarter of the world’s ‘chernozem’: the best soil on the planet. The extent of these soils is equivalent to 4.5 times the area of all of the UK’s cropland, most of which is nothing like as fertile. A recent global analysis of where you would ideally plant crops shows we could get the same amount of food from half the cropland, lowering the carbon and biodiversity impacts of production by 71 per cent and 87 per cent respectively. A shockingly large share of this land is in Ukraine and southern Russia. Globally, we will need this land back for food production in time, which is all the more reason to resist Putin’s land grab.

4. Food security is more about what we eat than what we grow
Britain’s food self sufficiency rate doubled during the second world war, from 30 per cent to 75 per cent in six years. But food production only increased by 0.5 per cent per year over this period. What changed was our diet: rationing meant we ate a quarter less meat than before the war (40 per cent less than today). Eating more vegetables and grains raised our self sufficiency because animals are inefficient, if tasty, converters of calories: 100 calories of grain turns into 12 calories of edible chicken, 10 calories of pork or 3 calories of beef.

These days, we are increasingly making plants taste like meat: a wave of alternative protein innovation means plant-based burgers and chicken nuggets are beginning to pass the taste test. Half the meat eaten in the UK is processed or pre-prepared (think supermarket shepherd’s pie), and so is suitable to be replaced with these alternatives. Doing more of this would have the food security benefits of a 1940s diet, without the ration book or the odd recipes.

In summary, what would a Putin-proof food security strategy look like? It wouldn’t subsidise fertiliser, grub up the hedgerows or plough the world’s wild areas.

On the contrary, it would prevent starvation by spending more on international aid, so the poorest can afford the food that is already available. It would support farmers to farm smarter, with much less fertiliser, not to farm harder. It would end biofuel production overnight, freeing up enough food to feed hundreds of millions of people, thereby lowering global food prices before next years’ harvest. It would restore nature rather than expanding farmland, and invest in alternative proteins to displace the wasteful industrial meat production gobbling up all the grain. And it would support the people of Ukraine to win the war, thereby denying Putin control over some of the world’s most fertile land.

Written by

Policy director at Green Alliance. Tweets at @dustin_benton.