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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Rising wheat prices expose global food system’s vulnerabilities

Wheat prices have seen a dramatic increase of 53% since the start of 2022, mainly due to the invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are crucial suppliers of globally traded grains and seeds, supplying almost 28% of the world’s wheat, 29% of barley, 15% of maize, and 75% of sunflower seeds. As well as inflicting terrible costs on human lives and social and physical infrastructure, the war has also severely disrupted grain exports and thus driven up prices. The drastic decrease in wheat production and exports has pushed more people to the brink of famine and poverty. UN Secretary-General António Guterres cautions that shortages of grain and fertiliser caused by the war, warming temperatures, and pandemic-driven supply problems could result in “malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”

Extreme heatwaves have also hit India a month earlier than usual, with temperatures as high as 50°C. According to the UK’s weather service, human-made climate change has made heatwaves 100 times more likely in India, which is the world’s second-largest wheat producer. In order to ensure that there is enough food for the local population, the country suspended wheat exports in May. Worse still, China, the world’s largest wheat producer, has seen its worst harvest in recorded history this year, as heavy rains have delayed the planting of wheat. 

The wheat-production crisis highlights the quandary facing the agricultural sector in the context of extreme and frequent weather events due to climate change, particularly for a country like India, whose agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors contribute 20.19% of the country’s GDP and employ half of its workforce. Heatwaves also increase the risk of wildfires, which often destroy farmland and could potentially destroy 3 million full-time jobs in India’s agricultural sector by 2030. All of which means that it is imperative for economies that are heavily reliant on agricultural outputs to implement adaptation measures to protect crop production from extreme weather conditions. 
In addition to climate adaptation, the food system needs an urgent overhaul in order to ensure food security for a growing world population that is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050. For example, a large proportion of the world’s grain is used as animal feed instead of for human consumption – China imported 28m tons (that’s 28 billion kilograms) of corn to feed pigs in 2021, more than Ukraine’s total annual export.  A study conducted by Oxford University researchers Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek reveals that meat and dairy provide 18% of calories consumed worldwide, while they use 83% of global farmland and contribute 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. [1]This inefficient feed-to-calorie conversion exposes the inherently unsustainable nature of the livestock industry in the face of resource scarcity. 


1 Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. Vol 360. Issue 6392. Pages. 987-992. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216. Accessed on May 31 2022.

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