‘I learned something again’ podcast: How Russia is starving the world

Wheat thefts, blocked ships, mined fields: the world is less supplied with cereals following the Russian attack against Ukraine. Because he was one of the biggest producers of wheat. The worst famine since World War II is imminent.

Before the Russian attack, Ukraine was one of the largest food producers in the world. Their wheat, corn and other cereals are eaten all over the world. In 2020 alone, it produced nearly 25 million tonnes of wheat and exported three-quarters of it. Only Russia, the United States, Canada and France sell more wheat.

But with the start of the war, Ukraine almost stopped its deliveries. The southern coast with the most important ports is blocked by Russian troops. Ships loaded with grain are stranded. Train transportation is complicated and dangerous as fights clog tracks and train tracks. 13 million tonnes of grain cannot be exported due to fighting, says Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, professor of agricultural policy at the University of Göttingen, in the ntv podcast “Learning Again”.

Mined fields make farming dangerous

The Ukrainian government expects half of this year’s total harvest to be lost due to the war. French data analysis company Karryos, which assesses NASA satellite images, estimates that this year about a third – 35% – less wheat can be harvested.

Spring is an important time for agriculture. Turnips and potatoes go into the ground, wheat and corn are sown. But there is a lack of staff and space. It’s not long before the summer harvest either. “Of course, wherever armed conflict approaches, it becomes more difficult. Purely for security reasons. After the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from the kyiv region, there are reports of minefields, which makes the work dangerous” , reports Farming Expert. by Cramon Taubadel. In addition, there is a lack of gasoline and agricultural machinery. “They were taken away by the Russians.”

Russia wants to “deliberately put pressure”

Ukraine is always supplied. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, there are currently around 20 million tonnes of wheat in storage. But it is decreasing every day. Around 700,000 tonnes of grain simply disappeared during the war, according to the UN agricultural organization – it suspects Russian troops stole it and brought it to Russia. In addition, the Russian army destroys warehouses and fields. According to the Ukrainian government, it has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat.


Farming goes on despite the bullet in the ground: farmer Ivan at Lukashivka in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region.

(Photo: photo alliance / NurPhoto)

Cereals that people around the world urgently need, says Hermann Lotze-Campen in the podcast. “Russia and Ukraine are important suppliers to global markets,” says the head of the climate resilience department at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and professor of sustainable land use and climate change at Humboldt University in Berlin. This could “of course further aggravate hunger crises”.

With attacks on grain silos, the Russian army does not only want to harm Ukraine, explains Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel. It seems that Russia “consciously wants to put pressure on the world food situation and the supply situation in some importing countries”. Grain as a weapon is the keyword.

Cereals are more expensive than they have been for a long time – prices are exploding. In March and April, it cost about a third more than a year ago. Prices have already increased due to the corona pandemic, explains Hermann Lotze-Campen. “Whenever commodity prices rise in world markets, poor countries that depend on imports immediately run into trouble. As always, it hits the poorest of the poor, the poorest sections of the population in poor countries. ” Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel sees no letting up in the years to come.

Billions more for wheat imports

Federal Development Minister Svenja Schulze sees the worst famine since World War II coming. According to experts Lotze-Campen and von Cramon-Taubadel, a global famine is not yet imminent. But it is hitting Ukraine’s main client countries hard: in the Near and Middle East, in Southeast Asia and in Africa.

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According to Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, a large part of the population in North African countries depends on cheaper cereals thanks to government subsidies. Countries are very fearful of unrest from rising agricultural prices, as they did in 2008 and 2010. “It is estimated that Egypt will have to spend two to three billion dollars more on wheat imports this year. gross domestic product, lots of money.”

The Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transformation Economies knows there is still enough wheat, but other countries like India, the United States and Australia can step in. “It may be that some countries like China and India, which have large stocks, think: we could now sell some this year,” says von Cramon-Taubadel. Experts cannot predict whether there will still be enough next year. Moreover, Russia, the leading supplier of wheat, does not currently export any cereals. India, the largest wheat producer after China, is currently experiencing an extreme heatwave with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius – which is also putting the harvest at risk.

Most grains are fed

Producing more grain in the short term is difficult in agriculture. Especially in countries where water is already scarce. But there are other ideas. Hermann Lotze-Campen suggests eating less meat. “More than half of the cereals grown in Europe are intended for livestock. For climate protection and health reasons, animal husbandry and the consumption of food of animal origin should anyway be reduced in the longer term. It may not help right now, but it will have a long-term effect.

The war in Ukraine has hit farmers hard. Fertilizers and animal feed have become much more expensive. This is why German farmers are exceptionally allowed to mow grass or let animals graze on certain “priority ecological zones” this summer. Hermann Lotze-Campen considers this to be ineffective. In order to relieve farmers, it would make more sense for them to grow other types of plants. “For example, in response to high fertilizer prices, particularly for nitrogen fertilizers, or less availability, you could grow more legumes, i.e. nitrogen-gathering plants like peas, beans, lupins, which stock up on nitrogen. certainly the case something you could do relatively quickly. »

Despite the war, agriculture continues in Ukraine. Farmers somehow try to cultivate their fields. In their distress, they fall back on old methods, for example, and do the work as before, with horses. They won’t be able to plan properly until the war is over.

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