Wheat as a weapon: Food scarcity can be reduced – Wikipedia

The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine hits the population hard: millions fled and thousands died. The consequences have always been felt in other countries. Food prices are rising dramatically because Ukraine can only provide a small part of the usual agricultural products.

Russia is closing the ports and thus exporting grain. This affects key clients in the Middle East and North Africa. Russia is taking action on its own and has confiscated between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of wheat, according to Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky. Enough to supply nearly six million people for a year.

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Trade obstruction, fertilizer shortage and severe weather

“If Russia permanently controls the Black Sea coast, then there will be drastic changes in the nutritional situation in many countries,” says Stefan Tangermann. The agricultural economist has been a director at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for a long time and has been a member of the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the United Nations Committee on World Food Security since this year. He explains that about a third of world wheat exports come from Ukraine and Russia. “If Russia were alone, it could use grain as a political weapon, increasing and decreasing shipments at will, just as it already does with oil and gas.”

It can already be seen today, says Tangerman, that Egypt’s foreign policy makes imports preferable. After all, the country has so far received 70 percent of its wheat supply from Ukraine.

Replacement is needed and available. “Global stocks of grain are at a satisfactory level, so more could enter the market,” says Tangerman. However, wheat prices have risen significantly by about 50 percent compared to the previous year. In addition, trade flows must be restructured to compensate for the loss on the Black Sea coast. “It is clear that importing from Canada, for example, is more expensive for Egypt than from Ukraine.”

The global food supply is not only under pressure from banned grain exports. There is a risk of future crop losses due to a lack of fertilizer. Rising energy costs and sanctions-related declines in deliveries from Belarus and Russia are also driving sharp inflation. In addition, harsh weather conditions threaten crops, drought is rampant in East Africa, and millions are at risk of starvation.

Panic buying and speculation threaten supply

In April, HLPE outlined what needs to be done to avoid severe bottlenecks in this situation. The committee advises helping famine-prone countries with money so that they can buy food. Panic buying and excessive hoarding should be avoided, and a temporary ban on biofuel production from spent grains should be considered. There is also hope that China will release supplies. “It is estimated that the country holds more than half of the world’s wheat stock,” says Tangerman. But because he probably won’t offer them that, other countries will have to contribute more, including the European Union.

The High-level Panel of Experts also formulated measures that would stabilize food security in the coming years. Therefore it is necessary to make agriculture and nutrition more diverse, preferably the latter with regional products. Countries should better coordinate and share information in order to identify bottlenecks at an early stage and avoid speculation. The commission says stricter regulations would also be useful here. It also advises switching to less energy- and fertilizer-intensive farming.

“I have a problem with that part of the document,” Tangerman says. It may mean that yields are declining, but it is now important to increase agricultural productivity. “This is not possible without modern technology and synthetic fertilizers.”

Avoidable losses

The commission identifies another point of action: to reduce post-harvest losses due to spoilage and pests. According to the World Food Program, up to 40 percent of crops in some developing countries are lost before they can leave farms. According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, countries in sub-Saharan Africa lose 20 million tons of food annually in the weeks after harvest.

Various research projects aim to help solve the problem. To this end, a “Reload” program has been launched in East Africa, jointly with institutions in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Germany. One area of ​​focus is the storage of grain and vegetables by small-scale producers. “These contribute 80 percent to the food supply,” says project coordinator Michael Hess of the University of Kassel.

The scientists found that drying was often insufficient and thus led to the appearance of mold. In the process, toxins are formed, aflatoxin, which is a carcinogen and can lead to death. In 2004 there were 125 deaths in Kenya. The Reload team has set up a solar-assisted drying technology in order to be grid-independent.

The researchers also developed an acoustic monitoring system for warehouses: Based on the noise pattern, the system learns when beetles or rodents invade the stockpile, Hess reports. “This way, infection is noticed earlier and countermeasures can be taken.”

It is crucial in such research that the results are used extensively after the end of the project. This isn’t always easy, Hess reported. Lack of funds, uncooperative administrations and, last but not least, the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed some initiatives. “I hope that continues now,” he says.

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