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  • Writer's pictureHallie Shoffner

What the invasion of Ukraine teaches us about food distribution and climate change

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

My heart aches for the people and children of Ukraine. I cannot begin to comprehend their fear and sorrow, and it makes me appreciate the privileges I have - physical safety, financial security, and the confidence that both bring.

I want to say now that I am NOT comparing the senseless slaughter in Ukraine with a weather event. Instead, I am analyzing the invasion of Ukraine and the impacts of a DISRUPTED agricultural market. In this case, what happens when the world loses 14% of its wheat supply - the combined production of Russia and Ukraine.

Wheat Production Disruption

What does agricultural disruption look like in Ukraine? And how it could impact your grocery bill.

1. The impact on farmers - In the face of Russian aggression, farmers may have to flee the countryside, or fighting on the outskirts of the country can keep farmers from getting things like diesel, herbicides, and mechanical parts. They may not be able to effectively care for the current wheat crop, plant in the spring, or harvest in the summer.

See the video below of a combine harvesting wheat on our farm.

2. The impact on transportation - Any harvested grain may not get from the field to mills and ports where it can be processed into final food products.

3. The impact on exports - The Ukrainian Black Sea Port is already damaged, meaning that Ukrainian wheat may not be able to leave the country and go to places that need it most.

More Money, More Problems - Farmers, Consumers, and the World

Wheat prices surge amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the global price of wheat per unit jumped more than 5% because the world market is anticipating the exact disruption I outlined above.

Thus far in 2022, the US price of wheat is 14% higher than in 2021. That increase has negative implications for farmers, consumers, and vulnerable populations.

What about farmers?

The disruption associated with a higher wheat price for farmers means we pay a lot more to grow our crop. We pay more for the diesel and hydraulic oils for our tractors. We pay more for fertilizers. We pay more for the herbicides and chemicals we need to control weeds. Farmers may make more money when selling our wheat crop to mills, but our input costs are so high as to make our profits break even at best.

What about consumers at the grocery store? How does this impact US food supplies?

Let's put some context to this. Please note these are approximate numbers.

60 lbs of harvested wheat = 10 lbs of wheat flour (that's two of the solid bags you buy at the store)

10 lbs of wheat flour = 16 loaves of bread (that's 120+ sandwiches)

10 lbs of wheat flour in 2021 = $7.04 paid to farmers

10 lbs of wheat flour in 2021 = $8-$12 spent by the consumer

10 lbs of wheat flour in 2022 = $8.17 US market so farm (for farmers)

10 lbs of wheat flour in FUTURE = $TBD spent by the consumer

A wheat price jump from $7.04 to $8.17 (and we are only 2 months into the year and 12 days into the invasion) is significant, and we don't yet know the total cost to us at the grocery store. It is likely to be substantial.

What about the world?

Americans don't eat a lot of Ukrainian or Russian wheat. However, food production is globalized, so no country is self-sustainable in terms of consuming diverse and nutritious foods. In developing economies that import most of their wheat supply, a global shortage is terrible news. In countries in North Africa, for example, where food prices are already high, the cost of bread may be the difference between dinner or none. Food prices are also linked to civil unrest. A high price of bread can topple governments, upend infrastructure, and make the distribution of other foods even harder.

A Climate War

There's a shocking similarity between climate change and war. Again, I'm not comparing human aggression to extreme weather, but it is about DISRUPTION AND DESTRUCTION.

I want to encourage consumers to start thinking about how climate change affects the process - going from field to table - and all the things that must work together for your family to eat dinner.

Step One: Farmers must live in a safe place with good, arable land in a climate suitable for their crops. Think of the Ukrainian farmers who are displaced. Think of coffee farmers who are losing their arable land to rising temperatures.

Step Two: Farmers must access the materials they need to make a crop - things like diesel and hydraulic fluid, herbicides, and water. Due to disrupted roadways and ports, Ukrainian materials cannot quickly move throughout the country. Similarly, flooding, hurricanes, ice storms, and wildfires can affect the flow of materials and a safe, healthy labor force.

Step Three: Once the crop comes out of the field, someone has to get it to a mill or processing facility. Again, disrupted roadways and forms of transportation and labor shortages arrest this process.

Step Four: Food must be stored and processed into a final product. Safety, workers, and materials are again needed. Additionally, these sites may be at risk of violent storms. Last year, a catastrophic tornado demolished a candle factory in Kentucky - a facility that will never reopen. It could have been a food processing plant.

Step Five: Finished products must make it to the grocery stores. Even if food makes it into Step 4, it still must fill the shelves at consumer markets. This is, again, about the transportation of goods and worker safety.

Climate change, like war, makes these steps more difficult. The more difficult each step gets, the lower the food supply and the more expensive food becomes.

We are in a climate war but not with Mother Nature. It is a conflict between our better selves, our resistance to change, and our avoidance of fear and long-term thinking.

When I make my son's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, there is so much at stake. For me, as a farmer, a parent, an American, and a citizen of the world.

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