Blogs, Systems Thinking

Food systems transformation in a time of global conflict

Global food systems continue to be rattled by economic, political, and environmental shocks around the world. Following two years of supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war against Ukraine is resulting in devastating food security implications, locally and globally. 

Food insecurity is increasingly concentrated in areas affected by conflict and war — be it Nigeria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and most recently, Ukraine. Food insecurity is also compounded by extreme weather events like the drought across South Asia and the Horn of Africa. 

These conflicts and crises are an urgent call to action: we must transform food systems to be more resilient to shocks of this magnitude. 

Together, Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the world’s volume of wheat. The two countries are also major producers of other staple food commodities like maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds and oil, as well as agricultural inputs like fertilizers. Global wheat prices have steadily risen since the invasion in February, furthering affordability concerns brought about by the pandemic and inflation. 

At this time of year, farmers in Ukraine would typically have planted their fields, preparing to supply supermarkets around the world with grains and vegetable oils. Today, exports from both Ukraine and Russia have ground to a halt. In Ukraine, farmers are being encouraged to sow more buckwheat, oats, millet, peas, and other summer harvest crops to meet the food needs of people and armed forces in the country. Around the world, governments are providing incentives to farmers to sow more wheat and corn to offset global shortages. 

Today, IPES-Food, a panel of world-leading experts on sustainable food systems, is warning that “underlying rigidities, weaknesses and flaws in global food systems” are fanning the flames of global hunger”. Further, they warn that opportunistic and short-sighted responses to the crisis that exacerbate current trends – such as suspending environmental regulations, ramping up industrial food production, and further promoting fertilizer-dependent export-oriented agriculture. These structural flaws and weaknesses in food systems must be urgently addressed.

While attending to short-term needs like emergency food aid, the global community must not miss the opportunity to catalyze more transformative changes to our food systems. Focusing solely on short-term responses at the expense of longer-term, more structural reforms jeopardizes our ability to meet broader sustainability targets and will only increase hunger into the future. 

As world leaders gather today at the World Food Summit it’s never been a better time to ask: what are the ingredients for food systems resilience? 

From our Beacons of Hope series, we see time and again how localized, agroecological food systems that build food sovereignty close to home are thriving. Ensuring these systems are climate-resilient and less dependent on imported food and inputs is a priority. Resilient food systems of the future will incentivize a diversity of crops grown for local consumption, and develop new market mechanisms to ensure food producers in our respective nations have the support and incentives needed to transition to agroecology and regenerative approaches

At the foundation of resilient food systems are inclusive, participatory approaches to governance. There are no people better placed to champion localized food system solutions than the farmers and Indigenous Peoples who have a deep understanding of what is needed to care for each specific environment and ecosystem.

How many global crises — be they wars, climate change, or biodiversity loss — will it take for us to realize that bold food systems transformation is needed? It can be challenging to remain hopeful in the face of such existential challenges, but we need only to look to the Ukrainian response to the war to draw strength, inspiration, and courage for the journey ahead. 

Lauren Baker
Senior Director of Programs, Global Alliance for the Future of Food