Ertharin Cousin: Managing the Looming Global Food Crisis

An Interview with Ambassador Ertharin Cousin

Managing the Looming Global Food Crisis

The world is facing merging crises—the impact of climate change on agriculture, the COVID-19’s impact on supply chains, and now the war in Ukraine. What is the possibility that the confluence of these events will result in a global food emergency?

This is the perfect storm. You have the impact of COVID, the strain that it placed on food systems, locally, regionally, and globally, as well as the impact on supply chains, which continue to impact the movement of food, particularly in regional and local markets. You also have the high price of fuel, which impacts transportation costs for food, and the paucity of fertilizer, its increasingly high cost, and the impact that scarcity is having on production. The availability of fertilizer impacts smallholder farmers in particular, who don’t have the forward contracts that many large farmers have with fertilizer companies, which has enabled them to access very minimal amounts of fertilizer that are available this planting season.

The availability and price of food was already a concern before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has resulted in a tipping point in which many variables have coincided, establishing the trajectory for a looming global food crisis. Russia and Ukraine account for about 12% of the total calories traded in the world. They’re critical exporters of key commodities like wheat. The conflict is curtailing the production, distribution, and sale of those products into the export markets. The WTO estimates that every 1% in export restriction placed on food results in a 1.1% increase in food prices. On April 8th the FAO Price Index reached 159.3 points, up 12.6% From February. There are 107 countries around the world that may be severely impacted by these shortages and price increases. That’s about 1.7 billion people.

Regarding Ukraine, the reality is, when food storage systems are being targeted and bombed, when the fields that produce such a significant amount of the wheat and the essential oils in the global marketplace, are the targets of bombing campaigns—that is directly affecting the food system, not just for the Ukrainian people, but for the world. That is exactly what we have witnessed Russia doing. As I sit here from afar, that looks like using food as a weapon, as is preventing access to food. They are tools of war.

What are the food security implications of the War in Ukraine for regions and countries that are already on the brink and suffering from acute food insecurity? Will this be a tipping point?

There are two sets of countries that are impacted—those which are net importing countries who are directly impacted by the lack of access to trade with Russia and Ukraine for commodities, resulting in higher prices. These are countries with a higher percentage of smallholder farmers, which are an integral aspect of food availability, who now lack access to fertilizer. The 500 million smallholder farmers who lack access to adequate fertilizer, who produce 80% of the food that’s consumed in those countries could experience an approximate 30% loss in in production. That has a direct impact on the affordability and availability of food in developing countries. Making it more challenging is the fact that governments often step in to provide subsidies for bread and other commodities in these countries when food prices increase or provide the resources to farmers for them to purchase fertilizer. But these governments don’t have money. Their coffers are either empty or very low, because they expended so much of their capital as part of their COVID response. Many countries potentially impacted do not have the financial resources to provide the assistance that their citizens will need.

We need to ensure that we’re supporting the World Food Program and the many humanitarian organizations that provide food assistance, both in food and in cash, to those who are most vulnerable around the world—particularly in conflict zones where there is already very limited access. Providing that humanitarian support is quite critical. We also have an opportunity as a global community, to invest in what I call pre-emptive humanitarian emergency assistance. We know the crisis is coming based upon the number of yields that farmers will have both domestically and internationally over the next two to three years. This crisis could potentially affect the agriculture system for years to come. We have the opportunity to invest in new vehicles to help smallholder farmers better access seeds and tools that will allow them to more efficiently increase the quality and quantity of their yields, using climate-smart agricultural practices like precision agriculture. We can also assist them in the development of regenerative agriculture systems that will address the challenges of climate change, which are also significantly impacting our food systems. Investing in our own farmers, whether it’s in the US, Canada, or Australia, to ensure that they have the financial resources required to support their ability to purchase higher priced fertilizers and tools that will allow them to produce the food that is necessary for domestic consumption and international trade will also be important.

Some experts have suggested that the emerging global food crisis and disrupted food supply chains is a preview of what is to come if we fail to manage climate change. What does a resilient, sustainable, and climate-friendly food system look like and how can we cultivate one? 

Canada, the U.S, and Australia are home to some of the most efficient food systems in the world. Nonetheless, particularly in North America, our food systems are not agile or climate change ready. We need to transform our agricultural practices in a way that will incorporate the diversity of production methodologies that will allow us to support, not just the agriculture system, but the entire food system, in a way that is equitable and sustainable. Sustainable, in terms of the impact on the environment, on human health, and in a way that ensures financial return for all of the actors across the food system—from the farmer all the way to investors who support the production of food across our system. That work needs to happen at home, as well as abroad.

Its not just mitigation though, we also need to support adaptation measures in our agricultural production that will provide for those 500 million smallholder farmers that I spoke about, who don’t have access to vital technologies—whether digital technologies, biological, or the capacity to begin to transform their agricultural practices to increase the quality and quantity of their yields. We need to ensure that markets and systems are in place to support the reduction of food loss in developing countries as well. Food systems in developing countries are plagued by lack of access to storage, lack of access to appropriate transport, lack of access to refrigeration, and as a result, some 30 to 40% of what is harvested is lost before it arrives to the consumer. To create to create a sustainable food system in the developing world, we need to ensure that we’re also investing in ways to support a more efficient and climate-smart movement of food.

When we’re talking about the looming high food price crisis, we should recall that the years 2008 and 2011 had acute high food price crises as well. All evidence suggests that rioting and violence across more than 40 cities in 2008 and 2011 were the result of the inability of citizens to purchase food. Many would argue that in 2011, the Arab Spring was ignited as a result of the lack of ability to purchase food. We know that the those who work every day and who can no longer afford to feed their families will protest when their governments cannot assist them. We know today, governments, in many of the countries that are potentially impacted do not have the financial resources to assist their citizens. There is a probability that in countries where the high food price crisis will occur, there will be instability. That instability directly affects migration. It affects the stability of countries everywhere. This is not just a problem over there. It’s a problem everywhere. Citizens across the globe should embrace the opportunity to provide the pre-emptive action that is necessary to avoid the consequences of a high food price crisis.



Ertharin Cousin


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