The Russian invasion of Ukraine is rapidly disrupting the global supply of energy and food. In addition to Russia’s role as a large exporter of natural gas and oil, Russia and Ukraine together are responsible for about one-quarter of the global wheat exports, one-fifth of the global maize and barley and nearly two-thirds of the traded sunflower oil. Together with Belarus, they also produce over a third of the potassium, and about 15 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen that are used to fertilize a large fraction of the crops that feed the world today. Naturally, energy and food prices (already high following the COVID-19 pandemic) are soaring, and major food shortages are expected still this year. The promise of hunger and hardship for tens of millions (2 billion people in some estimates) as of the end of this year should not be taken lightly.
Many societal emergencies leave no time for preventing their worst effects, therefore the exceptional advantage offered by the early warning of a global food crisis should not go wasted. There are, in fact, effective ways to optimize the use of available food and agricultural inputs, many of which are accessible to citizens, communities, institutions and governments. Reducing food waste - estimated at about 15-20 percent of total global food production at the household stage - is among them. A call for a relief effort would also be granted: those able to increase food production, from leisure farms to backyard allotments, should do it. While food security is the outcome of multiple driving forces, strategies that reduce demand can help contain the rise in prices, making food more affordable for populations at higher risk of hunger.
Avoiding food sources that are resource-inefficient is also an effective strategy that could be adopted by many. A major drain on the world’s food supply is the use of croplands to produce animal feed. Despite requiring about 80% of the planet’s farmland, meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein consumed globally. These figures are not surprising: as the ‘middle-man’ in the food production chain, farm animals use most of the food they consume for their own survival (e.g., metabolic processes, thermoregulation, locomotion). No matter how efficiently feed is converted into meat and milk, energy and nutrients are inevitably wasted, along with the agricultural inputs (e.g., fertilizers, fuel) used to produce them. To put these numbers in perspective, if the use of crops as animal feed were halved, over a billion more people could be fed. Animal-sourced foods are also energetically demanding to produce and store, requiring continuous refrigeration.
Initiatives and policies that teach and incentivize society to make proper use of resource- and energy-efficient food sources can be, therefore, a great asset in times of hardship. Protein-rich foods such as beans, soy, lentils and chickpeas are in this category. They can also be stored safely with minimum logistical requirements (including the absence of electricity), providing adequate nutrition for large groups of people for long periods of time.
If forecasts are correct, global hunger may be at our doorstep. But it can be alleviated if we use our food more wisely. In a world where many are vulnerable to the risks of starvation, even small changes can have a profound impact.
- Those able to increase food production, from leisure farms to backyards allotments, should do it.
- Make proper use of resource and energy-efficient food sources: use more protein-rich foods such as beans, soy, lentils, and chickpeas – and plant-based foods in general.
- Support and adopt programs aiming to reduce dependence on animal-sourced food, such as Meatless Monday in schools, canteens, government places and events etc.
- Support and subsidize programs to stimulate the production of vegetables and legumes of small producers and producers in general.
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