Putin’s lawless aggression is a threat to global food security. A smart, coordinated, sustainable food systems response can help reinforce sanctions, prevent price shocks, unleash sustainable finance, and secure a livable future.

If Vladimir Putin succeeds in seizing the entire territory of Ukraine, he would effectively have authoritarian control over 30% of the world’s wheat exports, 20% of corn exports, and more than half of key oil seed exports. The war is already causing dangerous price surges. As Bloomberg reports:

Grains are the staples that feed the world, with wheat, corn and rice accounting for more than 40% of all calories consumed. Higher shipping costs, energy inflation, extreme weather and labor shortages have made it harder to produce food. And supply is shrinking: grain stockpiles are poised for a fifth straight annual decline, according to the International Grains Council. The war in Ukraine stands to only push prices up further, sending hunger to unprecedented levels.

Given Putin’s history of military aggressionassassinationsmass killing, even leveraging civilian deaths linked to energy supplies to pressure their governments—we can be assured he would use this leverage to menace the international community and extract concessions.

  • In the event the combined territory is subject to the same crippling sanctions now imposed on Russia, world food supplies would be disrupted and prices would rise sharply.
  • There are hundreds of millions of people, and possibly as many as 2 billion, who have no way to afford a food price spike that lasts more than a day or two.
  • Putin will use this threat to world food security as leverage to loosen sanctions and nudge geopolitical dynamics toward accepting his seizure of Ukraine, and his legitimacy.
  • In the event Putin is allowed to trade at least in agricultural goods, to prevent a global food crisis, he will surely use that opportunity to make extortionate threats and extract concessions.

LebanonYemen, and Indonesia—to name just three cases—are heavily dependent on imported wheat for basic sustenance.

  • A major food crisis in Lebanon and/or Yemen could spark a regional war that would pull in complicated alliances and oppositions, possibly including Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
  • Putin has a clear, even obvious interest in creating such a condition to distract NATO and consolidate his hold on illegally occupied territory.
  • Indonesia and other populous developing countries could see sustainable development progress impeded and experience destabilizing political unrest.
  • Whether Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Lake Chad region, or the Horn of Africa, such destabilization could have catastrophic consequences.

In short, Vladimir Putin cannot be allowed to take control of Ukraine—not for one minute.

Financial and geostrategic tools need to be coordinated and aligned to debilitate Putin’s military capabilities. 

  • Those around him need to see clear and trustworthy incentives to abandon, isolate, and ultimately arrest him. Putin also needs to be separated from the productive elements of Russia’s economy. 
  • This is complicated, but not impossible. It will require very careful coordination and surgical interventions, not blunt instruments.

The US and Europe should work to build a global coalition to replace international food supply flows being disrupted by the invasion of Ukraine. This is vital, because without that replacement, the resulting price shocks could make it impossible to decouple Putin from the better future Russians naturally aspire to. 

Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe and is a leading grain exporter, supporting food security in many countries. Photo credit: Eugene Mykulyak.

Recognizing this, the G7 Agriculture Ministers issued a joint statement calling on all nations to support food production in Ukraine and bolster global food supplies. The G7 ministers warned they “will not tolerate artificially inflated prices” and “will also fight against any speculative behaviour that endangers food security or access to food”. Their statement noted the need to: 

“help facilitate harvests in Ukraine and ensure the ability of Ukrainian farmers to feed their population and to contribute to global food security.”

There should also be a coordinated effort to boost production and export from allied productive and emerging producer nations, with careful attention to both domestic sustainable development and delivery of real export financial benefits to smallholders.

  • This is necessary to ensure poor and marginal communities are able to function in an environment of global food system stresses.
  • It also creates an opportunity to expand direct support from the world community for devastating long-term sanctions on Putin’s regime.
  • By incentivizing and supporting a global alliance of nations to secure food supplies as a counterweight to Putin’s tyranny, a vast new field of opportunity for sustainable development finance is created.
  • This matters, because without a simultaneous rapid and decisive shift to sustainable practices, a rapid push to expand production could undermine future food system stability.

Food policy can protect the vulnerable, prevent price shocks, and weaken Putin geopolitically. 

The food policy response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should:

  1. Help sustain support for global blocking of Putin’s regime, on all fronts;
  2. Accelerate the shift to inclusive sustainable development, because that will be a safeguard against destabilization, distraction, and creeping authoritarianism;
  3. Expand the flow of capital to measurable, inclusive sustainable and climate-resilient development;
  4. Create conditions where demobilizing, demilitarizing, and transitioning to democracy clearly define the path to Russia’s better future. 

Targeted debt relief for developing countries could be a critical step to ensuring food supplies keep moving. Financial regulatory measures that reduce speculative upward price pressures and redirect attention to medium-term macrocritical risks can also foster a more reliable and resilient global food economy and prevent Putin from spreading financial pressure through agricultural markets. 

Such measures should be designed to leverage the lead time inherent in commodities markets, where future investment returns are priced according to a wide range of variables. Supply and demand are part of that price calculus, but so are trends, incentives, enabling environments, and the wider net benefits picture. 

  • Past experience and analysis show major global food supply disruption could impose huge economic costs, slow down major economies and destabilize instruments of stability like the insurance sector.
  • The immense disruption posed by the invasion of Ukraine makes reducing future risk an emergency level priority, now.
  • Reducing future risk and loss by stabilizing the wider economy has a measurable return on investment, and stabilizing market behaviors and trade practices can be directly incentivized and rewarded.
  • Short term interventions should set up medium and long-term unleashing of mainstream sustainable finance, leaving no one behind.

Sustainable development is imperative, because without it, food supplies will be stressed, nation states will be destabilized, and the international community’s ability to sustain a unified response will be weakened. Thuggery and extortion work better in an environment of heightened vulnerability. Countering Putin and other tyrants requires actively reducing vulnerability and building resilience.

Turning back Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is imperative, because even with success in all of these other areas, allowing him to control so much of the world’s food supply will allow him to terrorize and extort in even more dangerous ways. Early estimates are that 13 million more people will experience food insecurity due to the invasion of Ukraine; a major, prolonged disruption of global food supplies could cut off hundreds of millions more from affordable everyday sustenance.

Putin’s quest to profit by destabilization, conquest, and coercion, must be stopped, for the sake of human rights, lives, and livelihoods, around the world. Urgent attention needs to be paid to both the immediate, and long-term food policy interventions that can limit and weaken authoritarian ventures like his. Inclusive sustainable development is a foundational measure to eliminate opportunities for domestic, regional, and geopolitical abuse by predatory regimes.

This is a Resilience Intel note on food systems and food security. Updates will be posted below and in future articles.

UPDATE, March 15, 2022

UN Secretary-General announces Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance

In a briefing to the press, which he opened with the words “Ukraine is on fire”, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Russia to cease all attacks on the people of Ukraine and highlighted the increasing levels of danger facing people around the world, as a result of the invasion.

The Secretary-General warned that the 2.8 million refugees from Ukraine are mostly women and children, who are vulnerable to predatory human trafficking networks. He said they are “targets” and “need safety and support every step of the way.”

He also warned that the war is “an assault on the world’s most vulnerable people and countries,” saying:

Even before the conflict, developing countries were struggling to recover from the pandemic – with record inflation, rising interest rates and looming debt burdens. Their ability to respond has been erased by exponential increases in the cost of financing.

Now their breadbasket is being bombed. Russia and Ukraine represent more than half of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and about 30 percent of the world’s wheat. Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Programme’s wheat supply.

To address this proliferating global threat to vulnerable people and to human development and wellbeing, the Secretary-General announced the formation of a new Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance. The effort will be based at the UN Secretariat and chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General.