Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is disrupting both countries’ exports of grain. Combined, Ukraine and Russia account for 26 percent of global wheat exports and 16 percent of corn exports. Just how deeply the war will cut grain exports from both countries this year is uncertain.
However, world markets evidently expect significant reductions. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index averaged 140.7 points in February 2022, up 5.3 points (3.9 percent) from January and as much as 24.1 points (20.7 percent) above its level a year ago. The index, which measures the changes in both the nominal and real prices of agricultural foods like grains, meat, and sugar, has a baseline of 100 set for the period between 2014 and 2016.
Current numbers are at an all-time high, exceeding the previous peak in February 2011 by 3.1 points.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the loss of global grain exports could be in the millions of tons. Last year, Ukraine exported just over 23 million tons of corn and Russia just under 4 million tons. On top of these supply uncertainties, increases in what farmers must pay for fertilizer and fuel are also contributing to the global rise in food prices. Keep in mind that similarly steep increases in grain prices in 2008 and 2011 coincided with a wave of civil unrest across the globe, including the upheavals known as the Arab Spring revolts.
One good step toward making up for global grain shortfalls and lowering food prices would be to end biofuel mandates around the world. Currently, one-third of the U.S. corn crop—about 125 million tons—is turned into bioethanol that is blended into gasoline. Turning millions of tons of perfectly good food and feed grains into biofuels for automobiles has always been a dubious proposition.
“Because the biofuel market is entirely driven by subsidies, you can unplug it literally with the stroke of a pen,” notes Ariel Brunner, Birdlife International’s EU policy director, in New Scientist. “We are literally burning a hell of a lot of food,” he added. “You are taking food off the table of people in the slums of Cairo to subsidize rich people driving SUVs.”
Scrapping biofuels mandates would tend to drive down prices by supplying the global demand for food and feed grains and thus help avoid a looming global food crisis.