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Butterfly Wings & Wheat: How The Ukraine War Could Spark Global Food Crises

In an interconnected world, we are faced again with the negative implications of the so-called "butterfly effect" when a localized conflict can have far-reaching consequences and trigger lasting crises. For our world's broken food systems, the war in Ukraine should be a wake-up call.

Volunteers provide food at the railway station to internally displaced persons who fled the hostilities waged by Russian invaders in Mukachevo, Ukraine

Volunteers provide food at the Mukachevo, Ukraine railway station

Carlo Petrini*


Could the conflict that erupted in Ukraine cause a new bread revolution in Egypt? Alas yes, the conditions are in place for this — and other similar upheavals — to happen.

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The outbreak of war in Ukraine — which is upsetting, unexpected and utterly unjustifiable — again leaves us feeling powerless and overwhelmed by circumstances far beyond our control. In a deeply interconnected world, this also forces us to again reckon with the negative implications of the so-called "butterfly effect:" how a dramatic event limited to a specific geographical area can have unexpected consequences in faraway areas of the planet, laying the foundations for serious and lasting crises.

Here, I want to focus specifically on the agri-food sector, in light of a sad fact: conflict and hunger are intimately connected phenomena, when one occurs the other follows almost naturally.

This is confirmed by what the World Food Program reports from Ukraine, where more than three million people are currently receiving food aid. And it is also demonstrated by the concerned statements made by numerous countries across Africa, the Middle East and Europe itself which, albeit for different reasons, fear the direct and indirect repercussions that the conflict will have on the prices and supply of food.

Impact in Africa, Middle East and Europe

Yemen, for example, imports 90% of its food — including 50% of wheat that comes from Russia and Ukraine. For a country where more than half the population (15 million individuals) already live in conditions of food insecurity, this war represents the worsening of an already tragic situation.

Egypt, once a major producer of wheat thanks to the fertility of the Nile, now — due to urbanization and desertification — buys 80% of this product from Ukraine. And in a country where bread has always been a politically controversial commodity (as well as subsidized), it is feared that the rise in prices of the raw material will create economic instability and uprisings by the population.

Due to the climate emergency, Morocco is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years. In the medium term, therefore, it will be forced to import grains, facing higher costs than desired due to the conflict.

We need to move towards sustainable food systems.

The Kenyan government, on the other hand, is worried about the price of fertilizers (of which Russia is one of the main suppliers worldwide), which risks skyrocketing. For small farmers, higher prices mean using fewer fertilizers; therefore a lower harvest, and therefore a lower income. This is further confirmation that we need to move towards sustainable food systems that put power back in the hands of farmers and produce using local and renewable inputs.

Turning now to Europe, we need to acknowledge that our food systems will not be exempt from the conflict. Ukraine is the EU's fourth largest supplier of food, while Russia provides 40% of the gas used to heat the greenhouses where we grow more than half of the vegetables we consume. An increase in gas prices can lead not only to an increase in the price of food, but also to the bankruptcy of some farms, and therefore a decrease in supply.

Bakers in Yemen put bread into plastic bags at a baker Wheat prices have risen sharply on world markets in the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine, putting more pressure on the already dire situation in Yemen, which imports 90 per cent of its wheat.

Wheat prices have risen sharply. Yemen imports 90% of its wheat, 50% of which comes from Russia and Ukraine.

Hani Al-Ansi/dpa/ZUMA

Food cannot become a weapon

So, arriving after two years of pandemic, this conflict will again make us feel the vulnerability and injustice of a globalized food system that responds only to the law of profit when unforeseen shocks occur.

And while we show fraternal solidarity for the drama that the Ukrainian people are going through — as well as the Russian people who oppose the wicked actions of their ruler — I ask national and international institutions to seriously reflect on the moral duty to change the current food system.

Because at no time must food become a weapon that amplifies the damage of a conflict. Food can and must, only and always, be an instrument to spread peace.

*Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement in Italy in 1986 after leading protests against the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement advocates taking a slower, more natural approach to eating, cooking and agriculture, and has spawned other "Slow" movements, including Slow Cities, Slow Travel and Slow Design.

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