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Ukraine: Do not let the poor and the greening suffer in the end

1 July 2022
Lia van Wesenbeeck, Director Amsterdam Centre for World Food Studies, writes about Ukraine and the implications for world food security.

Ukraine: Do not let the poor and the greening suffer in the end

The war in Ukraine is leading to major concerns about scarcity of fuel and food, and to a global call to expand production in the short term. As plausible as it may sound, such a policy is a wrong response to the shock caused by the war. What is needed is support for the poor, especially in the cities; freeing up land that is now used for biofuel and animal feed, but especially no (populist) actions that slow down the necessary diet and energy transition.

There are legitimate concerns for those who suffer from the war, and for millions of people elsewhere in the world for whom hunger threatens. Because of the skyrocketing prices for food and fuel, large groups of poor people, especially in the cities, cannot survive without income support. Here, there is a role for the International Monetary Fund, which can help countries with specially designed arrangements.

Meanwhile, a famine of unprecedented proportions is looming in the Horn of Africa. The United Nations World Food Program must be able to continue to buy and distribute food aid. This does not only require financial support. The UN must condemn Russia's blockades (and even robbery!) of food supplies in Ukraine and enforce the free passage of WFP convoys from Odessa through the Black Sea. Now the war is not only causing incredible suffering in Ukraine, but starving children elsewhere are also being victimized.

In response to price increases, measures are being taken in many countries to mitigate the effects of increased prices. In the Netherlands, this is mainly the (temporary) reduction of the excise duty on fuels; in the US allowing the sale of gasoline where 15% ethanol is blended. In addition, in many countries the need to increase food production is emphasized. In the EU, several countries, including EU President France, are calling for European plans for greening agriculture to be put on hold because they would lead to a decrease in food production in the EU.

As thoughtful and appropriate as these responses sound, they are not. There is no global food production problem, let alone a production issue for fuel. The global reserves of wheat are large and whether or not to sell these strategic stocks is a political decision. The same applies to decisions about increasing oil production and releasing strategic stocks of oil. It is important not to put the brakes on the much-needed transitions: high prices for fuel and animal feed steer consumption in the right direction and make innovation possible. Lighten the burden for the poor, but not for all.

There is also no reason to nibble on natural areas, or to back down on nitrogen standards: there is plenty of land if the US and EU in particular finally stop producing biofuel from food crops. It is important for the EU to stick to the green course, especially now. This year we are discussing the review of the Common Agricultural Policy, and then it will be fixed for years. The Netherlands is certainly not a pioneer in greening: the European Commission's first reaction to the Dutch commitment can be summarised as "a lot of talk but little substance".

Especially now, commit fully to greening, by responding to the war with well-thought-out policy. The energy transition is needed to leave a livable planet for our children. Greening is also the condition for a truly strong response to misconduct by countries such as Russia: an oil boycott now, without a drop in demand in the EU, will only lead to even higher world market prices that further harm the poor and help Putin.  

In short, everywhere we now hear about European values. Take them seriously and do not let the poor and greening suffer in the end.

* Lia van Wesenbeeck is Director Amsterdam Centre for World Food Studies, and researchers of ASI cluster 'food and agriculture'.

The contributions and comments by Michiel Keyzer, Ben Sonneveld ans Bart van den Boom are gratefully acknowledged.

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