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A world grain shortage puts tens of millions at risk

gillytech

Non paywalled version: https://archive.ph/u7s5R

charliea0

I'm kinda skeptical of the severity of this issue. Apparently Ukraine was expected to export 33.8 million tonnes of corn this year. The USDA says that the US produced 13,691,561,000 bushels of corn in 2019. If I converted the units correctly, that is 383 million tons. Just a 10% increase in production in the US alone would replace Ukraine's harvest.

Now there certainly could be an issue of price and logistics costs in food insecure nations, but I'm not sure the answer is enabling Ukrainian production rather than producing more outside of Ukraine / ensuring countries don't cut off global trade in grains.

Figures from: https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/...

https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/export-losses-gi....

kyrra

Logistics I think is large part of it. Another part is going to be the fertilizer shortage.

> Russia also exported 11% of the world's urea, and 48% of the ammonium nitrate. Russia and Ukraine together export 28% of fertilizers made from nitrogen and phosphorous, as well as potassium, according to Morgan Stanley.

https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/06/a-fertilizer-shortage-worsen...

tyrfing

Belarus potash exports, 18% of global supply, were also cut off in January due to US sanctions. This will force their dependence on Russia, with a Belarusian port on Russian soil, and for now they are struggling to export any of it.

https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights...

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-17/belarus-p...

Here's some perspective on current fertilizer prices: https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/fertilizer-prices-expec...

jltsiren

Famines are rarely caused by the lack of food. The necessary food usually exists somewhere, but those with the ability to deal with the situation are often unwilling to do so. Either they have better uses for the money and other resources or they just think it's not their responsibility.

mateo1

There are more issues than that, such as exchange rates. Also many populations around the world spend almost their entire income on food and still can barely survive. They are very price sensitive. If the price of wheat doubles it's almost irrelevant for us in the west, but potentially lethal for many in the third world.

charliea0

Honestly, just using existing corn less wastefully in the US might solve the problem.

anamax

> Just a 10% increase in production in the US alone

And how does that happen? Be very specific and quantitative. For example, which land gets planted that isn't planted now. Or, which crop gets replaced. Where do the inputs come from and how is that paid for? (Be sure to include equipment.)

Bloomberg notwithstanding, US farmers are actually fairly technically sophisticated. They're also money driven and competent.

peyton

Futures? This is what they’re for. Agriculture deals with shocks all the time. Nobody’s going to give you a centrally planned rundown.

anamax

Futures is just how farmers could pay to produce this extra 10%, assuming that everyone involved believes that farmers could deliver at less than the "raised" amount.

Futures doesn't address any of the "how do they actually do it" issues that I raised.

notfromhere

Ukraine is a big exporter of wheat and other grains. Combined with the fertilizer shortage, there's not a good way for global production to adjust in time for food security not to be an issue.

cassac

Why do you think it would be trivial to just increase production by 10%?

Mountain_Skies

Before the invasion of Ukraine, covid has already wreaked havoc with agricultural supply chains. The war in Ukraine has made things worse but things were going to be bad even without it.

landemva

It was government actions related to covid which wreaked havoc on supply chains.

And endless wars are also government actions.

kergonath

> It was government actions related to covid which wreaked havoc on supply chains.

A million dead in the US was always going to wreck havoc, not even counting the people in hospital. For all we know it would have been much worse without government action.

> And endless wars are also government actions.

That is not very helpful. Countries in the Middle East dependent on grain from Ukraine had absolutely no way of avoiding the war, and yet will bear the consequences. From their point of view, it is an uncontrollable calamity just like COVID.

MichaelMoser123

Interesting if food shortages will result in other conflicts, one of the causes for the Arab Spring were high food prices [1]

Is it possible that all this will result in a cascade of conflicts?

Here they are saying that food prices were going to rise due to COVID - and that was before the outbreak of the war [2]

Things seem to be going from bad to worse...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Causes

[2] https://www.ifpri.org/blog/covid-19-and-rising-global-food-p...

sateesh

Possibly yes, look what's happening in Srilanka.

ggm

I would be interested in an analysis at scale of artifacts, components, foodstuffs, industrial inputs, which have similar impact to the loss of this source of wheat, against a worldwide wheat market.

If (eg) Argentina Bolivia and Chile were unable to supply Lithium, how long would it take the world to ramp up to using Australian sources, and what would it do to the supply chain?

Or, if the soybean crop failed in one economy, would worldwide pig production suffer?

jka

Do you mean something like a "causal loop diagram" as mentioned in this article? https://www.transentis.com/understanding-the-beer-game/en/

(albeit at a larger scale and with more products and filter-by-country)

ggm

That's probably part of it, yes.

During peak covid vaccine ramp up, special plastic bags used in vaccine production were single source. So were the lipids and the factory to encapsulate the vaccine.

We saw mask and gown shortage, oxygen shortage, needle shortage.

pavankat

Good opportunity to reduce livestock and redirect crops for human consumption

https://news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/08/future-water-and-en...

Mountain_Skies

As soon as humans grow multiple stomachs, we'll be all set.

roflyear

What % of livestock feed requires four stomachs? What % of the land used for that feed grows crops that could not sustain people?

If you don't know the answer to either of these, you're full of shit.

ceejayoz

I was unaware vegetarianism required surgery.

ImPostingOnHN

that is not what the person you're replying to said.

viraptor

One thing I haven't noticed in the article is anything about wasted food. The common knowledge says: we've got enough food for everyone, it's just in the wrong place, so it's cheaper to throw away. If we really have global shortage, the balance of that will change and not throwing things out (or not overstocking in the first place) will become more common. I'd be interested in learning how much that affects the real shortage of food that we experience in the shop.

zamadatix

The common knowledge says there is enough food produced for everyone to not go hungry... but people want more than to not go hungry and they want it to be efficient for their life not for the food production/consumption ratio

The global wealthy can afford convenience and excess while the global poor can't afford basic needs. As such "it's just in the wrong place, so it's cheaper to throw away" is a desired outcome for the wealthy not a problem triggering inefficiency. It's also best to not equate food usage efficiency to general efficiency as a lot of the excess is the result of more food being cheaper than efficiently consuming less food. E.g. growing 100 apples to have 100 actually consumed apples takes a lot of effort to make happen. You have to make sure none go bad in transport, all are immediately sold at the store, and that people heavily plan out their lives around eating every apple they buy before it goes bad. It's just more efficient as a whole to make more apples even if that makes food efficiency look worse.

Carrying that forward whether or not there is a "global shortage" (taken to mean not enough produced for everyone to not go hungry) is irrelevant. People are already going hungry today so "enough that everyone can be fed" can't be the controller of why the wealthy can afford excess. The ability comes from their production and purchasing power compared to the world not the overall averages of the world.

Of course simple economics still exists and less of the good will result in a raise of price, the question of course being how much not working from decreased consumptions backwards. That raise in price is only proportional to how much is needed to lower global consumption. It's not a guarantee the wealthy will notice enough of an impact to no longer be able to afford excess. In reality the poor that were already short on food will see a bigger decrease in consumption than the wealthy due to price increases. A 10% price increase in food is only inconvenient for most in wealthy countries but in poor countries many have no choice but to consume less food as they have no more money to spend on it.

If I had to guess this shortage won't be near enough for production to be less than ideal distribution coveraging hunger. That said it'll still affect prices, just probably not enough for wealthy countries decreases in excess to have a meaningful impact on the overall supply.

pkaye

Here is a visualization of where Ukraine and Russia export wheat. Its mostly parts of Africa and Asia. But Asia gets a lot from US and Canada

https://oec.world/en/visualize/tree_map/hs92/export/rus.ukr/...

cupcake-unicorn

This kind of stuff really bothers me in addition to the ridiculous "meat shortage" or "save the coal miner's jobs" stuff. Let's use this as an opportunity to move past things that were popularized that don't really make that mucuh sense anymore.

Even for those who don't have celiac/gluten intolerance, gluten is high in lectins, and the molecule size is such that it can really cause damage to a lot of tissue. Wheat and dairy are extremely rough on the body and as time has gone on we've basically mutated to tolerate it.

Sorghum is a gluten free crop that's hardy and grows with less water, in addition to having a favorable nutrient profile full of antioxidants. Getting more antioxidants in the diet can really be the tipping point for those who have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune and other disorders and that's why things have gotten so bad under the crappy western diet.

Sorry if I'm just being dense here but I really don't understand why "grain shortage" or "meat shortage" are thrown around in the media as being life and death situations. There are surely grains that are more heat tolerant and we can further cultivate and select for types of healthier grains that are instead of trying to make wheat happen because "mm bread/beer". I don't eat either of those things and I suspect that communities who suffered a shortage of either of those things would also find a way to make do, potentially to their benefit by integrating more diverse foods.

I guess if at the end of the day climate change is such that nothing can grow we're screwed but then why is this article so focused on wheat in particular? If a certain crop or export just isn't making sense sustainability wise this ends up just looking like the old "buuuttt the coal miners will lose their jobs" type story.

drewm1980

We could feed people instead of cows, chickens, and pigs.

skybrian

It would be interesting to see some graphs of how international trade in grain compares to total production (including internal consumption).

pmoriarty

Doesn't the US currently pay some farmers not to grow food -- or is that a myth?

more_corn

Yes, we do that to control prices and prevent oversupply.