A recent article in Nature explores threats to the world’s agricultural production and provides solutions to help stabilize the global wheat supply. Led by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) scientists – with contributions from NASA Harvest’s Inbal Becker-Reshef, SOAS University of London, the Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre, Pennsylvania State University, and Versant Vision LLC – the article provides an overview of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine reveals shortcomings in the global agri-food system and discusses measures policymakers can take to improve food security.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drives wheat prices to their highest levels since 2012, consumers around the world are feeling the economic hit. Ukraine, a major exporter of wheat, has seen its production fall post-invasion and this supply shock has created uncertainty around whether there will be adequate supply for wheat-importing nations.
With the FAO’s Food Price Index reporting wheat prices 16% higher in July 2022 than the same time last year, there is an urgent need to implement strategies that can mitigate further price increases and allow consumers to access the food they need for survival.
The authors of the article argue that a combination of supply- and demand-side interventions are necessary to minimize near-term food insecurity and shore up long-term global wheat supply.
Taken from article: Dynamics of the global wheat trade. a–c, The central role of Russia and Ukraine is highlighted in data on annual wheat exports (a), annual wheat imports (b), and in the provision of wheat exports to import-dependent countries, particularly in the Global South (c): Asia (1) excluding Indonesia, Turkey, Philippines, Japan and Bangladesh; Africa (2) excluding Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria; Europe (3) excluding Italy, Spain and the Netherlands; and Americas (4) excluding Brazil and Mexico. Data and code are available from https://github.com/FBaudron/Figure_Bentley_et_al.
Countries with no data available are colored in grey in a and b. In c, the height of a block is proportional to the volume of wheat exported or imported by the corresponding country, and the width of a stream field is proportional to the volume of wheat traded between the two countries connected by the stream field. Exports from Ukraine are shown in light red and exports from Russia are shown in dark red, with all other exporting countries shown in orange.
In the immediate future, states should look at intensifying current wheat production. In many places, current wheat yields are not meeting their potential. Incorporating more efficient management strategies around irrigation, pest management, and tillage could increase yields in lower producing countries, whereas high producing countries like the US and Canada can improve production through targeted agricultural subsidies.
States can also improve supply by reducing demand through restriction of grain for human rather than animal consumption, encouraging alternative nutrition sources, and exploring substituting the use of cheaper cereals in current flour blends.
For the medium-term, the authors suggest that many areas around the globe could be sustainably transitioned to wheat production. They provide Ethiopia as an example, noting that the country has announced plans to achieve wheat self-sufficiency through both expanding wheat production to new areas while also double cropping in existing wheat farmland with the water infrastructure necessary to support it.
The study also notes that expanding technical support like mechanization, agricultural input analysis, and the provision of drought and disease resistant seed varieties is necessary. Previous studies show that implementing better agronomic practices like these could double crop production in many regions.
Remote sensing of global cropland also can play a major role in mitigating medium-term price shocks. International grain markets are tightly intertwined and production disruptions can quickly spread around the world. Agricultural monitoring using satellite-derived information allows policymakers to evaluate global production throughout a growing season, which ultimately increases transparency for commodity markets and provides lead time for necessary interventions.
All short- and medium-term solutions however, must also be evaluated for their long-term impact. While cropland expansion and intensification are necessary to meet the current crisis, care should be taken to ensure that these approaches don’t unduly impact biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water quality.
Additionally, any policies that seek to increase production or decrease demand should be mindful of the potential gendered impacts that may inadvertently result. Previous food shocks demonstrate that women are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity as they tend to face heavier workloads, have less power in decision making, and often reduce their own consumption so other members of their household can eat.
While technological advances in agriculture have done a lot to decrease the number of food crises the world has faced over the last several decades, more research is necessary to accommodate a world population slated to pass eight billion people by the end of 2022. Government encouragement and investment in this technology is thus vital to creating a more resilient and sustainable agri-food system.
The current food supply crisis has a number of short- and medium-term solutions that could be implemented to mitigate the immediate effects. These interventions are not sufficient on their own, however. The current crisis will not be the last threat to global food security, and long-term changes and investments in the agri-food system are necessary to protect a growing global population. The current situation provides an opportunity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of agricultural production and distribution systems and resolve to improve them.
Near- to Long-Term Measures to Stabilize Global Wheat Supplies and Food Security is available open access through the journal Nature Food.