Arguably the biggest current problem for the world is the food supply, and particularly grain. About a third of all wheat and barley exports and about one fifth of the corn comes from Ukraine-Russia, and as you may have noticed, there is currently a war that is becoming bogged down in Ukraine while Russia is being sanctioned. Ukraine plants about 6 million hectares in wheat, and that has to be planted by May. I assume there also has to be some earlier soil preparation so time is running out. On top of that, it appears the weather has been very unkind for grain growing in China as heavy rain delayed planting. China’s wheat crop is the largest in the world, three times greater than the US, and 80% greater than Russia’s, however China remains a net importer and Chinese production this year have been estimated to be reduced by about 20%. Some of the problems for Ukrainian production are obvious, but others less so. Besides the actual problem of planting and managing the crops in a war zone that unfortunately is focusing its attention on some of the major grain growing areas, there is the problem of obtaining sufficient fuel and fertilizer.
The sanctioning of Russian oil means that fuel costs are almost certain to rise, and the turning off of Russian gas turns off the feedstock for the making of the hydrogen and providing the energy for ammonia production, which means that fertilizer in Europe will become very much more expensive. Such problems can be solved. There are other ways to produce the fuel and the fertilizer, but such alternatives cannot be just turned on overnight. Building a new route in the chemical industry takes many years even to build your first conversion plant, and nobody will build one until they see how the first one operates. So for the time being we are stuck with what we have.
The rich countries will grizzle but meet the increased price, but what will the poorer nations do? My guess is they will continue buying from Russia, sanctions or no sanctions. Political niceties go out the window when then choice is to starve.
What can be done? Obviously, ending the war would be a starter, and hopefully that will come to pass, but the various sanctions will stay, so the Russian wheat crop will be unavailable to the West. More interesting is the problem of if the West imposes sanctions on any country buying Russian wheat. If China purchases it, that will relieve the pressure on the rest of the world to some extent because China will get its wheat from somewhere. Fortunately, China has had a policy of storing surplus so its reserves may make a major contribution to easing the problem.
The obvious solution is to increase production elsewhere. At first sight, that is obvious, and in some places probably achievable, such as Sudan and Nigeria, except again part of the reason these places do not grow as much is because they have internal fighting. Climate change is also a big factor. Many countries have marginal production, but it is unclear whether growing conditions will get better or worse. New Zealand provides an example of a further problem. New Zealand is a net wheat importer, even though it can grow its own. The reason it imports is that its farmers can make more money growing something else, and that means if it did switch to wheat production in some regions, it would have to switch off something else and raise the price.
We have to be careful we are not just moving the problem. To switch in some regions that do not grow much at all would require a big investment in harvesting machinery, purchase of seed and fertilizer, and find skilled farmers. Seed is more troublesome than it might seem because seed often carries pathogens that suddenly thrive in a new environment. Thus the purchase of special seed in Bangla Desh in 2016 introduced a fungus that halved overall production. In some cases it may be better off to make the switch in what you grow because there are other flours that can be used, such as from legumes (less nitrogen fertilizer required) or millet. Some farmers could try that, but what happens if they guess wrongly? The invisible hand of the market is not kind to those who guess wrongly, so farmers tend to stick with what they know works well for them. Who carries the risk if we need big change?
We obviously have to do something, but what?