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Is the EU's food security under threat?

Priyanka Shankar
April 15, 2022

As food prices soar, the EU looks at securing food supply within Europe and worldwide. Yet food security is not an immediate threat.

Breakfast cereals are seen in supermarket shelves at a story in Germany
Prices of grains used in breakfast cereals have increased due to the war in UkraineImage: Udo Herrmann/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

As the war in Ukraine continues, households across the world are feeling the heat with prices of common food items like wheat, vegetable oils and sugar soaring.

The Black Sea Region is a global breadbasket and Russia and Ukraine account for 29% of global wheat exports, 19% of maize exports and 78% of sunflower oil exports.

Yet the war has disrupted food production and further inflated food prices. Russia has banned grain exports and Ukraine's harvest is uncertain.  

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighted that the global food price index hit an all time high in March this year, the highest since the FAO's establishment in 1990.

Graph showing the monthly change in the price of food items in the EU
Food Price Indices in the EU

Within the European Union, the price of food, alcohol and tobacco  roseby 4.1% in February after a 3.5% increase in January. 

"It's important to remember that the real threat to food security is in poor countries, particularly in countries very dependent on imports from Ukraine, like in the Middle East and North Africa," explained Ariel Brunner, farming expert with BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, an organization focussing on nature conservation.

"In Europe, it's more of an inflation issue," he told DW.

"Cereals, sunflower oil and a handful of other commodities will probably experience a supply shock. But it's important to understand that this is about the near future," he said.

EU's food trade with Russia and Ukraine

The EU has been a key trading partner of different agri-food products with both Russia and Ukraine.

According to a report by the European Parliament, before the war the EU sent 3.7% of its overall exports in agri-foods to the Russian Federation and about 1.4% of it's imports came from Russia. While EU agri-food exports included soya beans, cocoa beans, oilseeds and honey, imports from Russia included oilseeds, wheat, feed ingredients and fertilizers for farming. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine accounted for 36% of imports of cereals to the European Union and 16% of oilseeds. In turn, the EU exported more than 3 billion euros of agri-food products to Ukraine in 2021. 

Sunflower oil bottles are seen at a supermarket in Germany
The price of vegetable oil has increased since Russia's invasion of UkraineImage: Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance

Yet according to the European Commission, the bloc can easily weather the instability caused by the war in Ukraine.

"The EU is largely self-sufficient for food, with a massive agri-food surplus, and the EU single market can once again be expected to prove its ability to absorb shocks," the commission saidin a statement . It published a report in early April, which includes measures to help EU farmers to increase domestic production of grains like wheat, maize and oilseeds. 

Sommer Ackerman, a young farmer and climate activist currently based in Finland, also told DW that the EU does not need to fear food shortages due to the war.

"The EU is a net exporter of agri-food products. However, Putin's attack on Ukraine has led to inflation in food production prices. This also includes energy prices which are impacting the fuels needed to make and export food and agricultural products," she said.

The Commission had previously already warned that high input costs might continue to drive up food prices, hitting the EU's poorest communities.

Ackerman stressed that food security outside the EU was also being impacted. "There are some countries in North Africa that heavily rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine for their food security. The EU needs to redirect food supply to these regions as well," she said.

A wake-up call for farmers?

The war in Russia has also increased the price of fertilizers, making food supply costs even more expensive and angering farmers in many European countries.

Farmers in Greece and France have already held demonstrations demanding the EU should support them in tackling the high fertilizer costs, which many fear will impact food production.

While the European Commission has announced that farmers will receive more EU subsidies to handle the rising fuel and fertilizer costs, Pekka Pesonen, the Secretary General of European farm lobby group Copa-Cogeca, told DW, "we have already seen that before the war, there was a huge increase in the prices of fertilizers, energy and cost of labor."

He added that these "additional higher costs have been very difficult to explain to the other parts of the value chain: the processing industry and retailers." 

Is food security under threat?

Birdlife's Ariel Brunner argues that while it is clear that farmers are struggling, this war has also exposed the problems of the current farming system in the EU.

"The heavy dependence on fossil fuels is becoming an obvious problem and some farmers are now also  starting to realize that they should be less reliant on artificial nitrogen fertilizers and use more agro ecological practices. It also shows the vulnerability of hyper specialization, where so many farmers have moved from mixed farming to only growing one type of product," he told DW.

"It's very clear that a lot of our farming system has been driven into a corner where the farmers are extremely vulnerable, whether it is by these sort of geopolitical upheavals or indeed climate change, which remains the big real threat for food production."

A tractor spreading fertiliser on a wheat field near the village of Yakovlivka is seen after it was hit by an aerial bombardment outside Kharkiv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues.
Ukranian farmers are uncertain about yields from the upcoming harvest season due to the war.Image: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

Prepared for crisis

Given that food security in European Union is not at risk, the bloc is in fact keen on tackling global food shortages far beyond its own borders.

The European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said that "rising food prices are putting the most vulnerable people across the globe in an even worse situation. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increases the pressure on food systems and threatens millions worldwide with hunger. We are now at a turning point and urgent action is required."

He said the EU together with the UN would work to tackle food insecurity and provide humanitarian aid to vulnerable regions.

Last week, members of the European Parliament also called on the EU to increase its domestic production and support countries outside of Europe facing food shortages because of the war. 

A grocery cart is filled with essential food items at a store in Germany
Grocery bills increase in the EU due to the war in UkraineImage: Udo Herrmann/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

For Copa-Cogeca's Pesonen, the EU needs to learn from the past and become more resilient.

Speaking from his hometown in Finland, he explained how Europe had dealt with food shortages in the past. 

“About 100 years ago, Finland was part of Imperial Russia. And then due to the political difficulties and the revolutionary wars in Russia, our borders were closed. That meant that, especially in the south of the country, we actually had a lack of food," he told DW.

“That experience has triggered a political willingness to ensure EU member states are actually working on what they call a preparedness plan, where in any kind of crisis, whether political, military or even natural, we must ensure that the population is well fed and we have stable supplies."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer, Catherin Schaer