A year after Russia invaded Ukraine, the effects on food security in developing nations are still being felt.

And while the situation is improved from last year, it would be wrong to say the problems have gone away and naïve to believe things couldn’t once again take a turn for the worse.

Russia and Ukraine have traditionally been major suppliers of food inputs, fertiliser and energy – and developing nations have been big buyers of their wares.

In 2021, either Russia or Ukraine (or both) ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. Russia also stood as the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilisers, the second-leading supplier of potassium fertilisers and the third-largest exporter of phosphorous fertilisers.

Statistics provided by Comtrade last year revealed that in the period 2016-2020, Ukraine’s largest markets for wheat and maize exports were (in order) Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines and Morocco. For Russian exports of the same commodities, the biggest buyers were Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Sudan and Nigeria.

Six west African countries imported 30-50% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

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Food security anxiety remains despite Black Sea deal

The invasion saw Russia blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, from which it exported more than 90% of its goods. The trading situation remained dire until the Black Sea Grain Initiative – signed in July – re-opened the grain corridor out of the ports of Odessa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi to exports of corn, wheat, sunflower, barley, rapeseed and soya beans.

It is tempting, but not correct, to think that since the resumption of shipments from those ports food security issues have gone away, especially when it comes to the developing world.

While cargo ships laden with grain are delivering supplies to the wider world, experts suggest it is far too early to rest on our laurels.

The key interlinked issues have been, and remain, supply and price.

In its January 2023 Ukraine Conflict Executive Briefing, international research and analysis business GlobalData – Just Food’s parent company – concluded all prices have returned almost exactly to where they were before Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.

“Large availability of Black Sea wheat at competitive prices, as the grain deal continues despite intermittent threats from Russia, is one factor putting downward pressure on prices,” GlobalData’s report read.

It added: “There are a number of fundamental elements behind the recent decline in prices, alongside the resumption of Ukrainian exports … Russia had a bumper wheat crop last year and this is further weighing on prices.”

But while prices of food inputs have come down to pre-war levels, as have fuel and energy costs, they still remain elevated in historical terms.

Moreover, exports of wheat, barley and sunflower oil have still not fully returned to levels seen in the months before Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022.

And whether that Black Sea deal remains in place is down to the whims of Vladimir Putin. It is due to be renewed in March and in the past Putin has threatened to rip the agreement up, arguing supplies are mostly going to the developed world rather than, he claims, to the developing countries where they are most needed.

Similarly, nobody knows what lies ahead in Ukraine itself. The country remains a war zone and so its ability to sew crops and gather them going forward will remain a challenge but even more so if the frontline moves west.

It is important to note the war is only one of the factors contributing to food security issues in the developing world. The Covid-19 pandemic, famine and other conflicts are also important factors at play.

In a joint report published last month, the FAO and other agencies estimated nearly a half-billion people, more than eight in ten of them in south Asia, were undernourished in 2021, while more than one billion faced moderate to severe food insecurity. In Cambodia, it is said half of the population faces moderate or severe food insecurity.

Globally, the prevalence of food insecurity rose to more than 29% in 2021 from 21% in 2014, the report found.

“The conflict in Ukraine has dealt a heavy blow in many countries that depended on the region for wheat, edible oils and fertilisers,” the report said.

FAO’s Food Price Index remains high

The FAO’s monthly Food Price Index hit a record in March 2022 before falling back as commodity prices declined later in the year but is still 28% above the 2020 level.

Speaking to Just Food, Dr. Monika Tothova, a Rome-based economist at the FAO, stressed it would be a mistake to see trade flows from Russia and Ukraine to their customers in the developing world as being normalised.

“The situation improved from the beginning of August when we started to see ships leaving the Black Sea ports again. But they [the Black Sea ports] are certainly not the way things were before the war,” she says.

“There are infrastructure problems. The [power] grid is being attacked and this has impacted port operations. And other damage means it takes longer to get stuff to the ports.

“And everything is checked in Istanbul on the way out and checked to ensure the ships are empty on the way back. So, there are some logistical problems.”

Tothova also points to lower levels of produce.

“Apart from when there was active fighting, the farmers went to the fields and worked,” she says. “But there is a net shortage. Even without the war, 2022 production would have decreased because it was an exceptional year in 2021. But this year farmers have planted much less wheat.”

More generally, in crop production terms, before the war broke out, Ukrainian farmers sowed 17 million hectares of spring crops in 2021, but that was down 22% the following year, according to a recent European Council report.

Just Food analysis: Ukraine invasion one year on: cost uncertainty for food manufacturers continues

Backing up Tothova’s assertion, the report estimates Ukraine will export 30m tonnes of grains in the 2022-23 growing season, compared to around 50m tonnes in 2021-22.

But Tothova does not accept the wheat that is getting out is not going where it is most needed.

“If it comes out of Ukraine and goes to Spain it is available on the market. The fact it is being shipped decreases the price in world markets,” she says.

“Wheat is being shipped to the likes of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from wheat harvested in July 2022.

“Turkey is a very significant producer of what but also imports and processes wheat. It exports to the likes of Iraq, Yemen and Somalia – countries which don’t have significant milling capacity. Also, the World Food Programme sources wheat flour from Turkey.”

Dr. Lotanna Emediegwu, an economics lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in the UK, whose research specialisms include agricultural economics, does not entirely agree with this ‘trickle down’ theory.

He says: “Every continent in the world is quite dependent on this region. In terms of where we are now, developing country prices are still on the rise. Food inflation is going up.

“Lebanon, for example, has seen a 400% rise in food prices in the last year and Zimbabwe more than 70% in one year.

“Sone nations in the EU are getting a large quantity of these [Black Sea] exports. Most of the supply is going to the EU and this is understandable because Ukraine needs money. Some developing countries, such as Nigeria, have a debt crisis which makes it difficult to trade internationally.”

Impact of oil and fertiliser on food security

Emediegwu sees the cost of oil as another factor leading to food prices staying high in developing countries.

“There is a dependency on Russia for oil. Sanctions are affecting the price of oil and oil and food prices are highly correlated. It affects everything, including transportation and production, in developing countries even if they are not directly importing food from Ukraine or Russia,” he says.

The lack of fertiliser being exported from the war-torn area is also a key concern for developing nations.

Tothova, talks of the “elevated cost of fertiliser,” following Ukraine’s decision to ban exports of the product last March.

Jenney Questier, a senior analyst at GlobalData, adds: “The impact of the fertiliser ban was huge. I’m not sure we have seen the repercussions of that in terms of crop yields yet.”

The World Food Programme announced in November that it had facilitated the donation of 260,000 MT of fertiliser by the Russian fertiliser company Uralchem-Uralkali to countries in most need in Africa.

“This fertiliser is a critical agriculture input, especially for farmers on the African continent where the close of the planting season is fast approaching. A lack of fertiliser during this planting season will have a detrimental effect on future yields, potentially worsening already dire hunger statistics on the continent,” the organisation said when announcing the deal.

The first shipment of 20,000 MT of NPK sailed from the Netherlands during the week of 21 November, via Mozambique, to Malawi.

Other such initiatives are likely to be necessary.

Alternative sources

One of the topics for discussion related to food security in the developing world that raised its head after Russia’s invasion was the ability of countries to source supplies from elsewhere.

Western countries had the ability to pivot to find alternative commodities or new sources of supply – and even there higher energy prices resulting from sanctions imposed on Russia have had a marked impact on food prices.

But, in a seller’s market where demand outstrips supply, this was not always an option for poorer countries.

Tothova at the FAO says: “Shortly after the war started, wheat was available in the market. India exported some wheat as did other countries. The problem was mostly to do with price for countries with economic problems.”

With a shortage of supplies, poorer countries are also likely to be impacted by a bidding war.

And the situation with alternative suppliers can change rapidly, anyway.

Questier at GlobalData points out: “Some countries’ strategies on exporting – India being a big one – have been based on ensuring their own domestic supply.”

In May, India, facing a drought, effectively banned exports of wheat on a commercial basis to ensure its domestic supply, although it said it would still engage in country-to-country deals to ensure food security.

Looking for longer-term solutions, Emediegwu at MMU believes some developing countries need to become less dependent on certain crops and wants their governments to do more to facilitate this.

“In Egypt, people are moving away from the consumption of wheat to the consumption of rice in which it [the country] is self-sufficient,” he says.

“Many of the problems linked to food price inflation are to do with the composition of food consumption in developing countries. It is difficult to move people to something different at a higher price.

“Governments need to do more to subsidise these foods.”

It would seem to be a sensible suggestion given the uncertainty that surrounds exports from Ukraine in particular.

As Tothova says: “There’s not going to be as much stuff coming out of Ukraine. Availability will now be a concern because production has declined in wheat and maize and prices will still be quite high.”

Emediegwu adds: “The best way to see a positive change is for the war to stop. Otherwise, there is no relief.”

For more on Just Food’s coverage on how the conflict is affecting the food industry, please visit our dedicated microsite.