Food Has a Shipping Problem

What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows about agricultural globalization

Russia’s war in Ukraine has left many thousand dead, destroyed cities, and disrupted Ukrainian lives from Kharkiv to Lviv. As of this writing, 5.3 million have fled the country, with another 6.5 million displaced within the it. However the conflict ends, rebuilding lives and infrastructure will take years.

As that happens, the world will also have to grapple with the challenges the invasion has brought to global food markets. In recent years, Russia and Ukraine have produced a quarter of all the wheat exported around the world. Much of that goes to Egypt; of the more than 12 million metric tons of wheat that country imports every year, nearly 10 million come from Russia and Ukraine. Beyond Egypt, Russia also sends considerable quantities of wheat to Turkey, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Ukraine, meanwhile, exports large shipments to Indonesia and the Philippines. But its most valuable agricultural market is the European Union. For Ukraine, agriculture is, in fact, a major pillar of its economy. In 2020, as the U.S. International Trade Administration noted in a September 2021 report, “Ukraine’s agriculture sector generated approximately 9.3% of GDP.”

The phrase “farm to fork” may recall some fancy restaurant in London or Brooklyn. But it should really remind us of the highly complex global infrastructure that allows many of us to eat whatever we like, whenever we want.

And in both countries, exports have now been disrupted. In Ukraine in particular, farmers’ spring planting has largely been canceled as towns and villages have been ravaged by invading troops, leaving many unable to tend to their fields. Ukrainian seaports, in turn, remain closed as operating them would be too dangerous. While Bulgaria and Romania have offered to ship Ukrainian goods from their ports, getting the goods to those countries is a massive challenge. Indeed, the closure of Ukraine’s seaports makes it virtually impossible for the country to export large quantities of anything, especially grain, which can rot. This perilous state of affairs will continue to wreak havoc on global food supplies, especially in developing countries, which face shortages and rising prices. Egypt, for its part, has already had to fix the price of unsubsidized bread.

All this is another reminder that, in a globalized economy, armed conflicts have enormous ripple effects. In this case, what started as an invasion in Eastern Europe may change the very future of food—from farming, to shipping, to supermarkets, to consumers’ plates and forks.

How Does Our Food Get to Us?

The phrase “farm to fork” may recall some fancy restaurant in London or Brooklyn. But it should really remind us of the highly complex global infrastructure that allows many of us to eat whatever we like, whenever we want. And in the last few years, and especially during the Russian invasion, we’ve been reminded that the system has its vulnerabilities.

Let’s start on the farm. Even if Russia fully withdraws with immediate effect, some amount of agricultural misery is already baked in. The war has prevented Ukrainian farmers from harvesting their winter crops and rendered some 10% of their cultivated land unusable. The Ukrainian government estimates the farmers stand to lose between 25–50% of this spring’s harvest. Many Ukrainian farmers and farmhands have been called up for service in the armed forces or have joined Ukraine’s volunteer home guard, meaning that produce has spoiled on the vine.

The unharvested crops will result in both domestic food shortages and major financial losses for Ukrainian farmers, who typically export some $27 billion worth of agricultural products. Looking further into the future, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has noted that “considerable uncertainties surround Ukrainian farmers’ capacity to plant crops during the fast-approaching spring crop cycle.”

When farmers are able to harvest their crops, the crops are typically processed and packaged by agricultural firms and sent to customers. Produce traveling to domestic markets are usually transported by rail, while those being sent around the world go to the country’s ports. The fact that Ukraine’s only seaports are located in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and have had to close as a result of Russian naval activity, not only means that Ukraine has highly limited opportunities to deliver to international buyers any produce their farmers have managed to collect—it also means that it’s running out of storage capacity as this year’s harvest has to wait to be exported. In late March, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said that while his country normally exports 4–5 million metric tons of grain per month, that figure had fallen to a few hundred thousand in the month after the war began.

Together, Russia and Ukraine have made up a large portion of global wheat exports for decades. Our World in Data, 2022.

Meanwhile, although Russia has not closed its ports, several of the world’s largest shipping companies announced in early March that they would no longer call on the country. In fact, many of them had already stopped calling Russian ports: between February 1 and March 2, the port-service data provider Project44 observed a 35% decrease in the number of vessels within 50 nautical miles of Russian ports. On March 14, Russia suspended exports of grains to former Soviet states, and on April 5 the EU announced that it was planning to ban most Russian ships —those carrying oil and basic food items were exempted—from docking in the EU. (The U.K. already had such a ban.) Russian crops will thus reach international markets in smaller volumes, though Russia has not provided figures.

But let’s pretend all the ports suddenly open. Even then, you would still have a shipping problem. To see how, think back to the ballooning delays caused last year by a much smaller crisis. In March 2021, an ultra-large container vessel—the largest shipping method in the world, with a cargo capacity of more than 20,000 containers (known as TEU)—named the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal and blocked the crucial artery for six days. Because an average of 51.7 ships transverse the canal every day—transporting 12% of annual global shipping—the blockage caused chaos. Other ships had to decide whether to wait or take a much longer route, and either way, shipments of goods, including of edible items and animals, were disrupted for months.

Because global shipping is an extremely complex system, where cargo is delivered at ports for further transportation by other ships that are also unloading containers during their port calls, the six-day blockage caused a domino effect. Even months later, many consumers and companies were still waiting for their deliveries.

Disruptions to shipping mean not only delayed products, but also a lot of extra crew hours. These days, shipping fleets are usually crewed by citizens of China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine, who make up the majority of the world’s nearly 1.9 million seafarers. If large numbers of these crew members don’t come to work, shipping stops. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which represents 80% of the world’s merchant fleet, reports that Russians and Ukrainians are—for different reasons, but in both cases prompted by the war—already leaving maritime service. The ICS warns of coming disruptions (10.5% of seafarers are Russian and 4% are Ukrainian). Seafarers whose vessels happened to be on calls in Ukrainian ports when the war broke out, meanwhile, are stuck there, unable to leave and without secure access to food and other necessities.

So far, the journey from the farm has been difficult, if not impossible, but it isn’t over yet. On the other side of the sea await consumers. And they are facing some harsh realities. The sudden absence of large quantities of wheat, rapeseed, maize, sunflower oil, and fertilizer components means that consumers around the world are already seeing food prices rise. Indeed, hunger is now looming in the developing countries that import most of Russia’s and Ukraine’s cereals. Without food aid of a few billion more dollars, World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley said in a March 22 plea to Western governments, “you’re going to have famine, destabilization and mass migration.”

Things already look bad; according to the WFP, the price of cooking oil has increased by 36% in Yemen and 39% in Syria since the Ukraine war erupted, while the price of wheat flour has risen by 47% in Lebanon, 15% in Libya, and 14% in Palestine. In the city of Nasiriyah, Iraqis have been protesting the skyrocketing price of bread, which is up by nearly a third since the beginning of the Ukraine war. And with Ukrainian goods not arriving and its government unable to buy wheat elsewhere, Lebanon is already facing the prospect of running out of bread altogether. So dire is the situation that the government, knowing that lifting bread subsidies would likely cause riots, is currently negotiating an emergency loan from the World Bank.

How Has Global Shipping Changed?

Wars have, of course, destroyed harvests and planting seasons before. During World War II, Adolf Hitler planned to occupy Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and use its rich farmland for Germans. The retreating Red Army, however, left the advancing Wehrmacht (and some 36 million hungry Ukrainians) nothing but scorched earth. Indeed, Hitler’s and Stalin’s brutality in Ukraine cost hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians their lives. In other countries, though, many people had no idea what had happened.

But this is different. These days, a war in one place really does change food availability around the world. In November 2020, public health and medical scholars writing in the academic journal Nature Food documented a trend that every supermarket shopper is likely to have noticed: Supermarkets sell more types of fruit, vegetables and grain than they used to. “The diversity of fruit and vegetable supply has increased from 21 crops, comprising the top 80% of all fruit and vegetables supplied to the U.K. in 1987, to 34 crops in 2013,” the researchers noted. Today, supermarket shoppers in the U.K. and other Western countries can buy pretty much any fruit any day of the year, whether it is mango smoothies in February or avocado toast in October.

In recent decades, as supply chains have expanded, agricultural variety has dramatically contracted.

Indeed, food habits are indisputably changing. Not only are Western consumers discovering a taste for exotic fruit and vegetables; they’re also discarding the produce local to their countries. “The contribution of tropical fruits has rapidly increased while that of more traditional vegetables, such as cabbages and carrots, has declined,” the scholars established in the Nature Food article. Between 1999 and 2021, U.S. imports of fruit grew from 7.9 million tons to 14.5 million tons.

Western foods, meanwhile, have been making the opposite journey. “Over the past two decades, there has been increasing evidence and concern over the transformation of developing countries’ food systems from traditional to Western-type patterns. Food is produced using energy-intensive inputs, highly processed and increasingly sold through supermarkets and fast-food franchises from Western countries.. The consequent increase in the affordability and availability of foods, combined with economic growth, globalisation and urbanization, has led to what has become known since the 1990s as the ‘nutrition transition,’” noted Azzeddine Azzam, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a 2020 article in the academic journal Public Health Nutrition. In some countries, the trend is already having visible consequences. China’s increasingly Western diet, for example, means it no longer has enough space to grow the food to feed its population and has turned to using other countries’ land as a strategy to feed Chinese mouths.

Foreign delicacies are, of course, not new. In the nineteenth century, tea, originally a Chinese invention, became a British staple. But the rate at which things can be shipped—faster than perishables go bad—has changed the game. Indeed, in most countries today, consumers can relatively easily eat food grown somewhere else.

All this is made possible by efficient global shipping. According to the OECD, ocean shipping today transports 90% of all global trade. At every minute of every day, freighters are traversing the world’s oceans, carrying goods stored in containers over the seas. A look at the Dutch port of Rotterdam illustrates the extreme efficiency of global shipping. At noon local time on March 27, the port had 139 ships docked and was expecting another 139; 161 had departed earlier in the day. Those 439 ships carried every conceivable variety of goods, all serviced at high speed: Most cargo ships spend only about one day in port. Indeed, for all the talk of backed-up ports and consumer delays, so efficient is global shipping that, in 2020, nearly 100,000 commercial ships transported 10.7 billion tons of cargo—1.3 tons for every person on the planet. That’s up from 7.8 billion tons in 2009.

The efficiency of global supply chains has even meant that countries could stop producing certain foods. Indeed, it is more economical for countries to specialize. That’s what has made many Middle Eastern countries so dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine, even though their farmers also grow wheat. (Climate change is also having an effect on such domestic crop agriculture.) But pull one cog out of this machine, and the wheel can fly off. Absent Russian and Ukrainian imports, the world is suddenly missing one quarter of its wheat. The war has also created a shortage in chemical fertilizer, which has caused farmers around the world to reduce the amount of land they intend to plant over the coming months.

The war in Ukraine raises the question of just how sustainable and secure global food supply chains really are.

In terms of sustainability, the environmental advocacy group The Conscious Challenge notes that “fresh foods transported by air freight can have significant distribution-related carbon impacts, but on average, distribution of finished foods (from farm or factory to retail stores) contributes less than 4%, on average, of the greenhouse gas emissions of foods consumed in the U.S.” The organization, however, warns that “the mode of transport (air, road, rail, and water) is a much more important determinant than the distance traveled,” which makes it practically impossible for consumers to determine their food’s transport carbon emissions. But whatever their mode of travel, a lot of food products travel very far, and are surprisingly cheap given the miles they tally up. In the United Kingdom, oranges are available year-round for around only 45 cents each, a price that includes their travel from their countries of origin—usually South Africa or Spain—but likely does not account for the full environmental cost of such a network.

And then there’s food security. Nobody relies on Russia and Ukraine for their complete diet. But with certain countries dominating production of particular agricultural commodities, it can be hard to adjust the system on a dime. A wheat shortage could force buyers to find alternatives, like rye, but when that happens during a crisis, it pushes up prices for those commodities too.

“Resilience is acquiring a new meaning as a result of the Ukraine crisis,” said Patrick Holden, a British dairy farmer and chairman of the Sustainable Food Trust. “Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand shock. This crisis has made us question the resilience of our food systems. The question it raises is, if there were a sudden disruption of fertilizer, energy, animal feed, would you be able to keep going? No, because farms are dependent on them.”

On his own farm in Wales, Holden does not use chemical fertilizers, but even that has not made him immune to the disruption. Like other farmers and households he’s vulnerable to energy prices, which are also rising as a result of the war. His solution? Get off the grid: “I think every farmer in the world is thinking about that: how can I become less dependent on energy and global supplies?” he told me.

To be sure, if everyone followed suit, we’d be less dependent on foreign-produced food, have shorter supply chains, and perhaps more sustainable lifestyles. But that wouldn’t be enough to feed the world.

The key then, may be rethinking how each county can make the most use of its soil, even soil less fertile than Ukraine’s famous earth. In recent decades, as supply chains have expanded, agricultural variety has dramatically contracted. “The lack of biodiversity in agriculture is held responsible for homogenous diets which limit access to food, leading to persistent malnutrition and poverty: current agricultural production revolves around just 12 crops, and around 60 per cent of all calories consumed come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn and soy, despite the wealth of potential foodstuffs around the world,” the U.N. has noted.

Western farmers and consumers are the participants in the global food chain who have the most agency to make changes while helping ensure that the world has enough to eat. Consumers in Western countries may—and should—start asking why they expect year-round

In other words, humanity has far more room for diversity. That’s not to say that subsistence farmers in the developing world can rapidly switch to alternative crops. Indeed, Western farmers and consumers are the participants in the global food chain who have the most agency to make changes while helping ensure that the world has enough to eat. Consumers in Western countries may—and should—start asking why they expect year-round deliveries of produce, fruit, grains, and meat when nearby farmers could easily supply them with agricultural goods specific to the country or region.

Researchers are already developing new cereals, produce and fruit varieties that are expected to better withstand the effects of climate change. An enormous range is already available, featuring countless varieties created by Mother Nature and others developed by researchers.

Even more varieties are certain to arrive as research and commercialization progress. The humble carrot could be joined by veggies that are both as exciting as the avocado but that, unlike the avocado, don’t have to travel from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. In one of the many enterprising research initiatives underway, the International Atomic Energy Agency is working with the FAO to produce new fruit varieties that can produce higher yields thanks to irradiation and biotechnology. As part of the initiative, Cuba has introduced no fewer than 23 new fruit and vegetable varieties, including new versions of green bean and hibiscus.

Some three decades after globalization launched a radical transformation of the way our food reaches our plates, and as a result a revolution in what we eat, the war in Ukraine serves as a useful reminder of how little we know about our food’s origin. And that is not a good thing.