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Conflicts threaten food security and biodiversity. How can we overcome these challenges?

Photo by Kostiantyn Stupak from Pexels

The consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on food security and biodiversity go beyond the countries’ borders. The prices of food and other essential agricultural commodities skyrocket and go beyond the capacity of many. As a result, more people are vulnerable to hunger. “How to prevent hunger” has become a hot topic, especially as conflict erupts in the breadbasket of the world between Russia and Ukraine, threatening both food security and biodiversity.

Food security and the Russia-Ukraine conflict

The effect of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on food security and biodiversity goes beyond their borders. According to the FAO, Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, nitrogen fertilizers and natural gas, the second-largest of phosphorus and potassium fertilisers, sunflower, rapeseed and crude oil (fuel) and the third-largest of barley. At the same time, Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seed oil, the second-largest of barley, the third-largest of rapeseeds and the fifth-largest of wheat. FAO estimates that about 50 countries (about 1.6 billion people) are dependent on both countries for over 30% of their wheat import needs and about 40 countries on Russia for over 20% of fertiliser imports. Certain food-insecure countries are more dependent on Russian wheat, while others rely more on Ukraine.

Any disruption of Russian and Ukrainian exports, either due to international trade embargoes or self-imposed export restrictions, jeopardises global supplies of food, fuel and fertiliser. After the war began on 24 February 2022, food, fertiliser and fuel prices have risen globally from an already-high base level. Moreover, the impact of recent price hikes are more severe on the Global South, as those countries are highly dependent on imported food products and fertilisers (and in certain cases also fuel) and simultaneously suffer from political instability, natural disasters or prolonged conflicts.

The war in Ukraine is causing civilian deaths, migration within and beyond the country’s borders and a serious disruption in the global food supply chain. Food and water shortages have spread in major war zones and the Ukrainian government banned exports of wheat, oats and other food staples until further notice on 9 March 2022. Economic sanctions against Russia have also disrupted the global food system, instantly raising food, fuel and fertiliser prices.

Separately, Russia banned all grain exports on 14 March 2022 until 30 June to member states of the Eurasian Economic Union to ensure its own food supply. These actions will further push food prices higher globally and the economic burden will fall on consumers.

These actions clearly indicate how civil society is vulnerable to conflict. A robust ecosystem that can stand against such uncertainties is needed to keep lines of production and biodiversity safe. The EU’s Green Deal aims to make resilient, healthy and climate-neutral food systems for Europe and beyond and improve biodiversity on land and in aquatic systems.

Drought, flood and storms endanger production lines more than ever. Providing enough food to both human and climate-induced victims would be unsustainable in the long term.

David Beasley, Executive Director for the World Food Programme (WFP), described the conflict in Ukraine as a “catastrophe on top of catastrophe” regarding global food security “because of supply chain issues like fuel costs, shipping costs and food costs.”

FAO Information Note highlighted possible consequences of the ongoing war: “The capacity of many exporting countries to boost output and shipments may be limited by high production and input costs. Worryingly, the resulting global supply gap could raise international food and feed prices by 8 to 22 percent above their already elevated baseline levels.”

Top 50 countries that imported fertilizer (left) and wheat (right) from Russia and Ukraine in 2021. Source: FAO

If the conflict in Ukraine does not end soon, it will further damage the already faltering global food systems, both directly and indirectly and other countries that are not dependent on imports from Russia and Ukraine will bear the burden.

However, boosting supplies from other exporting countries may not be realistic, accounting for ongoing weather extremes and climate uncertainties. In the long term, more land is needed and new land becomes available through deforestation and biodiversity losses. Famine may occur in certain areas, endangering all forms of life, including humans. At the same time, the crisis will spur innovation by looking at new production systems and enhancing productivity with alternative sources.

Ensuring food security for the vulnerable

Over the past two years, governments have responded to Covid-19 pandemic-related price hikes with subsidies, international aid and individual and citizen movements on every continent. However, recent commodity price increases resulting from the conflict in Ukraine have not resulted in more actions other than supporting direct victims of the war in Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia.

Risks to biodiversity in war

Armed conflicts and wars obstruct environmental safeguards. In the struggle to survive, other interests are prioritised over caring for the environment. As a result, natural harmony fades, pollution levels rise and biodiversity disappears rapidly. The UN Environment Programme stated in 2018, “For over six decades, armed conflicts have occurred in more than two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity hotspots thus posing critical threats to conservation efforts.”

Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Viet Nam and Yemen have suffered catastrophic forest and biodiversity losses due to hostilities. Similar losses are expected in Ukraine’s conflict zones.

In most cases, both locals and aggressors contribute equally, resulting in forest and biodiversity losses. However, local communities bear the burdens of losses and environmental degradation by losing their livelihoods. To preserve biodiversity, it is of utmost importance that everyone works together to mitigate conflict.

Priority shift needed to fulfil SDGs

Scientists, governments, stakeholders and the public work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Though all 17 SDGs are interconnected and complement each other, in many cases, especially in the Global South, they focus on the first five: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being, Quality Education and Gender Equality). However, the WFP reveals that conflicts cause 80% of the major food crises globally. The WFP is actively assisting in 117 countries. Not surprisingly, all lie in the Global South except for the most recent one, Ukraine, underscoring the urgency of achieving SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. A stable and peaceful living environment can ensure basic needs. The priority must be to stop conflicts and establish global peace. Satisfying other basic causes of food insecurity such as climate, environmental quality and biodiversity must also be addressed in future conflict areas.

Conflict is inseparably linked to food security and biodiversity, endangering lives and livelihoods and dragging down development. The dream of a hunger- and poverty-free, healthy and resourceful planet may come true when conflicts stop forever or take a long pause and people value every single life.

Written by Mohammed Masud Parvage (PhD., Soil Science), intern at SEI.