The West, including the EU, must diversify to support Ukraine

Márton Gyöngyösi MEP
Ukraine’s future is in the EU Zelenskiy welcomes granting of candidate status

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), The ongoing conflict in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion has had far-reaching implications politically and economically on the rest of the world.

While military aid for Ukraine, humanitarian support, and impacts on gas prices for Europe dominate Western discussion of the war, internationally the focus is altogether different: food security.

One of the most significant impacts has been on global food security. Ukraine has been a quiet superpower in terms of the sheer number of people around the world it has, historically, been able to feed. Everything from grain to fertilizer to vegetable oils has been produced in large export quantities in Ukraine. The WEF points to countries like Lebanon that have historically relied on Ukraine for 60% of their supply of staples like wheat and oils.

Even Russia, despite everything, still has an enormous role to play in global food supplies. 30% of the entire world’s supply of wheat comes from the fertile region of rich black ‘chernozem’ soils that stretch across Ukraine and Russia. Both Ukrainian and Russian ports alike are struggling to export, a situation due as much to politics as it is to naval blockades. As Russian grain heads east, it’s some of the poorest countries in Africa that have been facing the most brutal price hikes.

When Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal, wheat and corn prices on global commodities markets jumped. No doubt this was part of Russia’s intent. The collapse of the deal also led to the destruction of a considerable amount of grain due to Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, destroying thousands of tonnes of grain, and deterring most grain ships. This is the game that Russia can play when supply chains are so concentrated, that one blockade can wreak havoc.

The war has also disrupted the market for sunflower oil, a product for which Russia and Ukraine are the world’s biggest producers. With exports dwindling, food companies are scrambling to find alternatives. This has led to an unexpected comeback for palm oil, brought in from Southeast Asia, far beyond the reach of  President Putin, which cannot be blockaded nor the industry used as a bargaining chip. Palm oil has been reconsidered as a viable alternative following the great leaps producing nations have taken to make the industry sustainable.

The most sophisticated sustainability innovations have taken place in many producing nations, which have managed to make the crop effectively deforestation-free. Malaysia, for example, has a deforestation rate of exactly zero according to the UNFAO official report, and the World Resources Institute described the country as “a success story … for several years now”.

U.K. supermarket chain Iceland has announced a switch back to palm oil, specifically the certified sustainable palm oil from the most responsible farmers, often in Malaysia (which now has its legally binding certification standard for all Malaysian farmers). It’s a calculated move, by bringing environmentally friendly palm oil back onto shelves, they encourage and support sustainable farmers while continuing to shun uncertified produce.

Underlying efforts to tackle climate change, however, is the fundamental necessity of securing our global food supplies. The world will continue to face destabilization, authoritarianism, and interruptions to supply chains. Ukraine is a testament to that unfortunate truth.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of global food security and the interconnectedness of our food systems. It serves as a reminder that geopolitical events can have far-reaching impacts, affecting the food on plates tens of thousands of kilometers away. As the situation unfolds, it will be crucial for countries and companies to make responsible choices, not just for their immediate needs, but for the long-term sustainability of our planet.

Southeast Asia presents a crucial geopolitical and economic theatre for food security. Not least because their product, palm oil, is by far the most efficient oil yield crop in the world, beating the runner-up, rapeseed, by over 400% per hectare of land. It’s a calorific goldmine to feed the world’s hungry.

When, in good times, Ukraine can once again guarantee peace and security for its traders, it will once more take up its place as the breadbasket of the world. But in the meantime, the West must start to break down trade barriers with new markets. It needs reliable trader partners that can consistently be depended upon to deliver. To lower food prices and reduce hunger, of course, but to deny Putin strategic control of such an important export.

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Márton Gyöngyösi is a Hungarian politician, who has been the leader of the political party Jobbik since 2022. He was a Member of Parliament from 2010 to 2019. He was the leader of the Jobbik's parliamentary group from 2018 to 2019. He was elected a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in the 2019 European Parliament election, as a result he resigned from his seat in the national parliament.