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A Looming Breadbasket Failure

By Bram Govaerts - International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
Director General


By Bram Govaerts | Director General - Fri, 04/29/2022 - 11:00

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The world finds itself facing the first severe breadbasket failure of the 21st century. It has not been brought about by climate change, as most researchers and practitioners would have predicted. We are facing a food crisis that has been triggered by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, two countries that together account for about 34 percent of the wheat traded annually.

The prospect of a breadbasket failure in the Black Sea region is pushing the prices of commodities to record highs. Russia is also the leading exporter of fertilizer globally and an important fuel supplier, both key inputs for agricultural production. The uncertainty associated with trade restrictions is causing havoc in food-insecure countries and regions that were already worn out by the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

North Africa and the Middle East are ill-prepared to deal with the crisis but there are at least 35 countries, only in Africa, that source most of their wheat from Ukraine. As grain stocks fall, the effects of this conflict will reverberate in other countries and regions of the world, including North America. The global outlook for 2022 does not look good at all. There is an urgent need for bold answers to the global food crisis that is already here.

In the short term, governments and development agencies or programs will have to advocate for open markets and to adjust global food supply chains. In the longer run, there has to be a global food system transformation that shifts the focus of food production and consumption from efficiency to resilience, and from productivity to adaptation. In the case of basic grains, like maize and wheat, this transformation needs to take place in farms of all sizes and shapes, in breadbasket regions but also in food-dependent countries.

More than before, food growers will want to cut costs to maintain their profits. Economic incentives can have important benefits for the environment. Commercial farming should make an optimal use of inputs, particularly water and fertilizer. Drip irrigation, remote sensing technologies and conservation and agriculture-based sustainable intensification practices are some of the technologies that farmers can use to grow food in a hotter, drier and more expensive world.

For smallholder farmers, the high costs and risks associated with innovation remain the challenge. It is not easy to phase out conventional practices, such as burns, that deplete natural resources if the risk perception of a crop failure is too high. For that reason, technical assistance, capacity building and collective organization are essential drivers of change in small-scale farming units and communities.

In addition to technologies and training, the farmers of the world need publicly funded research that continuously develops, tests and adapts new, more sustainable farming methods and improved, high-yielding and climate-resilient seeds. These are the two basic ingredients for successful agriculture: healthy soils and strong performing seeds. Both factors are essential for sustainable farming systems that are, in turn, the most solid foundation for a peaceful and prosperous world. Are you ready to do your part together with us?

Bram Govaerts is Director General and CEO at CIMMYT. He is an international authority in maize and wheat cropping systems who works for a successful transition to sustainable intensification of small-scale farming in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Govaerts advises public, private and social organizations worldwide and is an active member of research groups and programs including the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Knowledge Systems for Sustainability platform, the A. D. White Professor-at-Large program at Cornell University, and the American Society of Agronomy.

Photo by:   Bram Govaerts

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