Sylvain CharleboisEvents unfolding around the world are creating the perfect playbook for a global food security crisis: climate change, a pandemic, war and nationalistic hoarding are all factors.

Climate has been affecting agriculture for a very long time. And the unpredictable nature of severe weather patterns is making the lives of our farmers more difficult. Growing conditions have become anything but predictable in Canada and elsewhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has weakened supply chains, making logistics more expensive when transporting food. Delays and how the virus has desynchronized the global economy have also impacted costs.

Commodity prices were rising before the invasion of Ukraine in late February, but Russia’s assault has pushed all prices to record levels. Corn is up almost 20 per cent, and wheat is up more than 30 per cent since the invasion. Soybeans, oats and canola are all more expensive than just a few months ago.

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The conflict is impacting one of the world’s most significant agri-food production regions. Ukraine produces enough to feed almost 400 million people yearly. That’s greater than the population of the United States.

So idling an economy like Ukraine’s will have consequences. Some experts believe the world has 10 weeks of wheat supplies left due to the Russian invasion. Almost 40 nations get at least 50 per cent of their grain supplies from Ukraine.

For the longest time, global food security was very much a food distribution problem: how to get enough food to every region. We produced enough food but making it available in some regions was a challenge. Now, we won’t have enough food for everyone on Earth.

Early reports suggested that the number of hungry and malnourished people could increase by 100 million due to food shortages following the Ukrainian crisis. But according to the United Nation’s World Food Programme, that number has risen to 220 million in 43 countries.

And some countries are halting trade – as Indonesia did temporarily with palm oil and India did with wheat – which will only lead to more famine.

Russia, affected by many sanctions, now blames the world for the planet’s heightened food crisis. That’s like blaming the fire department for a burning building. But sanctions against Russia undoubtedly have an impact on global food security.

North America, however, is in a food security bubble. It’s not easy for us to appreciate what’s going on around the world. We find most shelves at our grocery stores full of food. Few of us can understand what other parts of the world are experiencing. But the world isn’t in a good place.

While food security is everyone’s business, the Canadian government appears to be living in a vacuum when it comes to agricultural productivity. Canadian farmers face the most expensive seeding season in history, and reports suggest that some farmers have opted not to plant this year due to extremely high input costs. Some tax relief or additional assistance with crop insurance would have been helpful.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve US$500 million in aid for the farm sector in a bid to encourage U.S. wheat producers to double-crop their fields.

But the Biden administration also temporarily allowed E15 gasoline, which uses 15 per cent ethanol blend, to be sold this summer. It usually can’t be sold from June to September – a measure intended to help reduce gas prices. So food appears to be less of a priority than fuel.

Food plays a central part in our democracies. Hungry societies will eventually break down. World order relies on highly functioning, democratic food systems.

Canada must address the issue of farming productivity to increase yields to help the rest of the world. With our many protectionist measures, Canada lacks the vision needed at a time when the world needs Canadian farming more than ever. Fertilizer affordability is one component.

The planet is coming to realize how capable Russian President Vladimir Putin is at hurting as many people as possible. By invading Ukraine, Putin is weaponizing food. The conflict is crippling the port of Odesa, so Ukraine can’t get its food out of the country. Allowing food to flow out of that region should be a priority.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.

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