Food shortages from war in Ukraine preview a future without climate action

Amanda Leland

In addition to causing unspeakable suffering, the war in Ukraine is sparking a worldwide food crisis. It’s a glimpse of what will happen if we don’t keep global warming from getting out of control.

Together, Ukraine and Russia export more than a quarter of the world’s wheat. Twenty-six countries get at least half of their imported wheat, a critical source of nutrition, from the war-torn region. With less wheat available to import and global wheat prices rising 20%, many people will face deepened food insecurity.

This is what happens when you disrupt the global food system — and that's exactly what climate change is doing, except on an even bigger scale, with lasting consequences.

Climate change’s shocks to the food system

Consider the effect on agriculture as drought intensifies in some places, while major floods become more common in others. Or the impact when destructive insects spread due to warming temperatures, and scorching heat waves increase in frequency. The results will be crop losses, invasive species, human migration and more.

That means we need to reduce the pollution causing climate change — and help the world's farmers adjust to the warming that’s already baked into the system.

The good news is farmers are in a position to do both.

A better path forward for farmers

Reducing climate pollution will take a collection of strategies, starting with moving to a clean energy economy. But farmers can contribute in specific ways — and profit from them, too. Agriculture feeds the world, but it’s also one of the largest contributors to climate emissions. We can’t meet global climate goals without climate-smart agriculture.

One-third of global methane pollution comes from livestock. By capturing and reducing that methane, we can quickly slow rates of warming this decade. And by helping farmers optimize fertilizer use, we can increase crop yields in developing countries while reducing global nitrous oxide, another powerful climate pollutant.

Even as farmers cut agricultural emissions, they can also make their farms more resilient to the climate impacts that are already here. This can include financial incentives to build healthier soils that can absorb heavier, climate change-driven rainfall or grow different crops that are better suited to changing growing conditions.

Strategies that support communities are key

We must put special emphasis on securing and improving livelihoods for communities that are vulnerable to both climate impacts and food system failures.

Here’s an example of how this can work in practice: In Kalyanavenkateshapuram village in India, many residents are cooking with biogas stoves, using cow manure as fuel instead of wood. This delivers a cascade of positive impacts for the environment and human well-being, including improved indoor air quality, reduced drudgery from no longer collecting firewood, extra income for reducing emissions and 3-5 tons less climate pollution per year for each stove. That’s about the same amount of climate pollution a car produces in a year.

These are the kinds of programs — ones that address community needs and climate change — that we must scale up dramatically.

Let’s use this wake-up call wisely

A resilient global food system goes beyond agriculture and grain supplies. It also includes seafood — the primary source of protein and nutrition for many of the world’s lowest-income people. Just as farming must evolve in response to climate change, fisheries must adapt to fish migrating to cooler waters, and supply chains must prepare for a future with more frequent supply shocks.

The war in Ukraine is a wake-up call not only for its immediate geopolitical implications but also for what it illuminates about climate change solutions. We have it in our power to build a new paradigm that supports a strong and resilient global food system — including smallholders, local production and shorter supply chains — while helping to protect all of us from food shortages, price spikes and our warming climate.

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