What will happen to the “Breadbasket of Europe” once the firing in Ukraine has stopped? Russia is the largest and Ukraine is the fifth largest wheat exporter. Together, they account for 29 percent of the world’s annual wheat sales. The war has disrupted not only harvests in Ukraine, but also Russia’s ability to ship its wheat to other countries.
This will cause food crises in much of the world. Two of the most volatile regions, the Middle East and North Africa, are the most dependent on these two sources. But food prices everywhere will be under pressure.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, wheat prices were already 49% above their 2017-2021 average, reports The Economist. They have increased by another 30% since the beginning of the war.
War will reduce supply in several ways. Obviously, this will reduce crops in Ukraine. But even if Russia’s wheat fields continue to produce, the conflict will make exporting its grain more difficult, as noted above.
Above all, it will affect crops elsewhere as Ukraine and Russia are also major suppliers of agricultural fertilizers. Ukraine’s supply is being pounded by war, while Russia’s is frozen by economic sanctions.
But what about American farmers? The United States is the world’s second largest wheat exporter. Couldn’t American agriculture replace a supply shortfall, especially if higher prices for their crops incentivize our farmers to grow more crops? It’s apparently not that simple.
American farmers would certainly appreciate higher wheat prices. The problem lies in the higher cost of its production. Already paying record prices for fertilizer, farms are also having to deal with the rising cost of the diesel fuel that powers their tractors and other machinery.
High fertilizer prices are already affecting what farmers choose to grow. Americans, for example, generally plant more corn than soybeans. This year, however, the balance has shifted in favor of soybeans. The reason: Soybeans generally need a quarter of the fertilizer that corn needs. As for wheat, it falls somewhere in the middle in fertilizer use.
Aggravating conditions, wind and drought have left the US winter wheat crop in its worst condition on record, according to the Department of Agriculture. This follows a poor harvest in 2021 that forced U.S. wheat stocks to their lowest level in 14 years. In any case, almost all the winter wheat was already sown at the start of the war. And a severe drought is predicted for the Western Plains, America’s breadbasket.
Even if the violence against Ukraine ends with a ceasefire or, better, a resolution, that country will have a hard time restoring its agricultural power. First, its agricultural infrastructure is being destroyed. Tractors and other agricultural machinery were used to stop the Russian tanks. And the Russians bombed farm buildings full of tools and other farm equipment.
There are also questions about the amount of ammunition currently buried in Ukrainian fields. This would put farm workers at risk of setting off explosives, as happened in Europe after World War II. The Ukrainians are already afraid that the Russians have corpses trapped in the streets with bombs. They could do it on purpose in the fields.
But if Ukraine were to get back on its feet, would everyone then revert to the old world food order? It seems unlikely. This bizarre invasion upended many assumptions about where everyone’s food came from. And if this horrible war lasts for years, the world’s international food system will certainly have to adapt constantly.
America, the land of plenty, will not starve. Our expectations that food will be cheap and plentiful may not hold up, but we have plenty to be grateful for.
* Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.