How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacts global food security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how conflict impacts food security. This nexus will be exacerbated by the impact of climate change, as factors such as increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and frequent hazards become more severe and the compounding impacts of geopolitical conflict and climate change worsen the state of global food security to an extent not seen before.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said in the 2023 national defence statement, which prefaces the defence strategic review, it’s in Australia’s interest to work with the Indo-Pacific region and beyond to address the challenges posed by climate change and increasing strategic competition.

Russia and Ukraine are key suppliers to the global food market and together constituted 12% of global food trade between 2019 and 2021. However, since 2022, the export of grain, sunflower oil and other products from Ukraine has been drastically cut by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea ports. The Black Sea grain initiative was established to ensure the safe passage of grain from Ukraine but Russia withdrew from the agreement.

Blocking these exports has contributed to an increase in global crop and food prices, which were already higher than pre-Covid-19 levels. Higher food prices have worsened hunger and poverty around the world, with 345 million people now in immediate danger from acute food insecurity. In addition, disruptions in the Suez Canal due to attacks on ships in the Red Sea along with plummeting transits in the Panama Canal due to dwindling water levels from climate change-induced drought have compounded global food insecurity.

Although distant from the Ukraine conflict, the Indo-Pacific region is similarly being impacted by food insecurity. Even Australia, as a highly food secure country and a net exporter of food, is not immune. Australia is an open trading nation that is very susceptible to what’s occurring on the global food market. A near record increase in food prices in Australia has been driven by factors including the conflict in Ukraine, Covid-19 and climate-induced disasters such as drought. For example, the global spike in wheat prices due to the war drove up Australia’s bread and cereal prices.

Indonesia, as one of the largest importers of Ukrainian grain, is also suffering from food insecurity due to the war. The experiences of Indonesia and the Global South more broadly, drove President Joko Widodo’s decision to meet with Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky in 2022. In a press conference after his meeting with Putin, Widodo reiterated his desire for the war to end as soon as possible and for food, fertiliser and energy supply chains to be restored immediately.  

Climate pressures in countries like Indonesia are expected to worsen. As global warming reaches 1.5 °C, likely within a decade, El Niño events will increase in frequency and severity. Indonesia experienced the impact of an extreme El Niño on food supply last year when when nearly a million hectares burned. The country’s 1998 food security crisis led to an increase in its poverty rate from 11% to 18% from 1996 to 1998.

India will also continue to be impacted by climate change with hazards such as flash floods and the impacts of the Ukraine conflict exacerbating growing food insecurity. To protect its food stocks, India banned the export of non-basmati rice last year. This ban has had significant downstream impacts on  countries heavily dependent on rice imports such as Indonesia. Such protectionist measures are likely to become more commonplace across the world in response to worsening climate impacts. These understandable actions of states preserving their food supplies ultimately worsen the global food crisis.

India has also responded to food insecurity by deepening its trade ties with Russia amidst the Western embargo on Russian exports. Of particular note is India’s purchase of Russian crude oil at a discounted price since 2022. Indian officials have emphasised that their country’s refinement of Russian crude oil and its sale to other markets has created some stability in the global oil market.  Not only is crude oil an energy source, but it’s an important input for food products so restrictions on the export of Russian crude oil have added to global food insecurity.

Australia should address its own growing food insecurity by implementing recommendations made in last year’s Parliamentary report which is awaiting a government response. The formation of a national food plan to be overseen by a minister for food is the key recommendation. This proposed plan covers Australia’s whole food system, including production and distribution and supply chain resilience. The minimisation of food waste, which costs the economy $36.6 billion a year, is central to improving food security. In this way, food security is not only about improving the quantity of food available but also improving access to existing supplies. With foodbanks seeing a surge in demand due to cost of living pressures, it’s imperative that vulnerable Australians are better connected to food supplies that would otherwise be wasted.

As global food insecurity worsens, there will be pressure in Australia to reserve supplies for the domestic market. We’ve already seen this occur with energy exports. Western Australia’s domestic gas policy requires the equivalent of 15% of natural gas produced from each export project there to be retained for use in the WA market. If Australia were to adopt a domestic food reserve similar to this gas policy, the food security of countries reliant on Australia’s food exports would be impacted. Indonesia as Australia’s fourth largest agriculture, fisheries and forestry export market by value in 2020/21 would be heavily affected.

Aside from bolstering domestic food security against challenges such as conflict and climate change, it’s in Australia’s interests to build regional food security. Already, Australia has budgeted $228.9 million for this financial year to official development assistance for climate resilient agricultural development and food security. However, aid and unilateral actions alone are not enough to combat the region’s worsening food situation. Australia cannot necessarily stop countries imposing protectionist measures to preserve their domestic food supplies, especially those in the Global South which are already suffering high rates of hunger and poverty. The Australian Council for International Development urges the appointment of a food security special envoy to lead and coordinate Australia’s whole of government and international engagement to build resilience in food insecurity. This envoy should coordinate Australia’s cooperation and participation within multilateral initiatives, such as the Global Alliance for Food Security established in response to the surge in food prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The role of climate change in exacerbating food insecurity in times of conflict needs to be considered within Australian Defence Force scenario planning. Instead of framing climate change as primarily an issue that will increase the ADF’s role in responding to humanitarian aid and disaster relief, Defence planners need to explicitly explore the growing intersection between climate change and conflict. Wargaming to increase interoperability across armed forces and civil society agencies such as emergency services and the police was suggested by the RAND Corporation for the UK Ministry of Defence’s climate change strategy.

The world is entering an era where geopolitical and climate risks are increasingly intersecting with enormous consequences for global food security. Beyond Ukraine, attacks on shipping in the Red Sea are also affecting supply chains. Numerous geopolitical hotspots including the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea could escalate into conflict. Were we to see concurrent major conflicts across the world, combined with the accelerating effects of climate change, the consequences for food security would be dramatic, especially if conflicts forced the redirection of major maritime shipping routes.

Clearly, Australia cannot by itself deliver the systemic change required to address global food security risks. But Australia’s importance as a net food-exporting country means that we have a key role to play in food security. Along with bolstering domestic food supply and building the capacity and productivity of regional producers, Australia can play a pivotal diplomatic role, catalysing global action in coalition with key states and multilateral institutions.