The global food price crisis has only just begun
And when the cost of living increases and people have less purchasing power, the economy slows down. Last week’s data showed stagnant retail sales growth. The UK’s post-pandemic recovery has definitely lost its rebound.
Yet when it comes to serious economic fallout, it strikes me that what matters more in this Russian-Ukrainian conflict than the impact on energy prices is the impact on the food prices.
The Western political and media class has yet to fully understand the critical importance of Russia, Ukraine (and Russia’s ally Belarus) in global agricultural supply chains. Global food prices jumped nearly 13% in March alone, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s price index, largely due to the impact of this conflict.
Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat, barley and other crops, millions of tonnes of which are exported through Ukraine. Typically, around a third of global grain exports are shipped from Black Sea ports, exports that have virtually collapsed.
If the right political agreements are reached, fuel supplies can be increased quite quickly. Embargoed energy from Russia (or Iran) can be released into world markets, or the Saudis can turn on the tap, driving prices into the stratosphere.
Yet crops have to be planted and animals raised over time – and this Russian-Ukrainian conflict spoils that. Not only is planting in Ukraine itself severely disrupted, but as this war and related sanctions drive up fertilizer prices, it also affects planting much further afield.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus account for about two-fifths of global potash exports and alone export nearly one-third of nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers. Almost all of these exports are now blocked either by sanctions or disputes – one of the reasons why UK farmers are paying up to five times more for fertilizer than at this time last year .
So, with food security in the UK front and center, UK farmers – hit by both soaring fuel prices and fertiliser, their two biggest costs – are now planting less, not more. Rising commodity prices, again linked to soaring wheat and grain prices, meanwhile lead to soaring prices not only for bread, but also for eggs and milk.
That said, the most serious economic fallout from this Russian-Ukrainian conflict, outside of Ukraine itself, will be felt beyond the West.
The world continues, to a large extent, to eat the crops harvested in 2021. We will soon move on to foods produced this year. But exorbitant fertilizer prices mean there are now far fewer plantings, accumulating a serious calorie deficit.
Already in Egypt, increased state aid needed to make traditional flatbread affordable to the poor is straining the Cairo government’s budget. In Turkey, cash-strapped shoppers are forming long queues to buy cheap government-issued bread, now unaffordable on the open market.
The Arab Spring – the series of protests and armed rebellions that swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s – was sparked and fueled in large part by soaring food prices. These regions are heavily dependent on huge shipments of crops, especially from Russia and Ukraine.