Experts propose short-, medium- and long-term practical actions to respond to the looming global food crisis exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
A new analysis lays out concrete actions that governments and investors must do now to mitigate near-term food security risks and stabilize wheat supplies, while transitioning toward long-term resilience in the agrifood system.
The guidance is published in Nature Food by scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and partners, which includes a group leader from The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, Prof. Sophien Kamoun.
The problem we are facing now
More than 2.5 billion people worldwide consume wheat-based foods. Some of the world’s poorest countries rely heavily on Russian and Ukrainian wheat. Given the highly interconnected nature of contemporary agrifood systems, few will remain unaffected by this new global food shock.
Dominance of the wheat exports by a small number of countries places inherent vulnerabilities on the global food system. This is exacerbated by the intensifying threats for climatic instability on wheat export potential due to heat, drought, heavy rains plus the increasing prevalence of certain diseases such as wheat yellow rust.
The published guidance lays out short-, medium- and long-term steps to respond to the global food crisis and ultimately lead to a more resilient global agrifood system.
Mitigate the immediate crisis
The first priority, according to the authors, is to mitigate the immediate crisis by boosting wheat production in existing high- and low-productivity areas, ensuring grain access and blending wheat flour with other low-cost cereals. Bundled agronomic and breeding improvements and sustainable farming practices can reduce dependence on imported grain and fertilizer, while coordinated, multilateral policies can help conserve grain stocks for human consumption and avert trade restrictions.
“Current events are reshaping trade routes for major commodities like wheat.” says co-author Sophien Kamoun.
By shifting trade routes, there is a higher risk of introducing new crop diseases as countries may not be prepared to detect these new threats. This would require that new sources of short-term wheat supply are de-risked. Contaminated seed is a considerable risk to wheat yield. A relatively recent example is the introduction of wheat blast from Brazil to Southeast Asia in 2016, which caused devastating outbreaks and immense losses in wheat yield.
Increase the resilience of wheat supply
In the medium term, the authors emphasized the need to increase the local, regional, and global resilience of the wheat supply. This can be done by expanding production within agro-ecological boundaries, supporting national wheat self-sufficiency and providing technical assistance, to increase the production of high-yielding disease-resistant wheat and to mainstream capacity for pest and disease monitoring.
In the preprint version of this article on Zenodo, it was noted that a mainstream capacity would need to include a global inter-connected pathogen surveillance system for major food crops so that effective mitigations strategies can be rapidly deployed to curb the spread of newly introduced diseases. The components for such a system are already available and could be mobilized so that national and regional plant protection agencies worldwide can work together to protect the remaining wheat supply chain in an impoverished market.
There are already examples, such as The PlantVillage model (www.plantvillage.psu.edu), which has shown how advances in AI, cloud computing and integrating satellite data make a big difference in pest and pathogen mitigation and control. Building on this, a genomics-based system for surveillance of threats in wheat seed exports could be implemented at the point of entry based on PCR testing and sequencing, mirroring the established COVID-19 PCR testing protocol for international travel.
Sophien Kamoun emphasizes that the surveillance and notifications of plant pathogen threats at points of entry has the potential to be very effective. Importing countries would be incentivized to rapidly mitigate the threat before an outbreak develops to disrupt crop production and their own export capacity.
“We absolutely need to implement genomic surveillance of plant pathogens at points of entry, to stop the spread of seed transmitted diseases like wheat blast.” he says, “The genomic technology is available; it’s cheap and reliable – so there is really no excuse for not deploying it widely.”
Read Sophien’s blog entry: Open science to tackle plant health emergencies: enough excuses, please!
Transition to system-level resilience
Finally, to reach crucially needed resilience in the world’s agrifood system, the authors propose long-term measures that encompass agroecosystem diversity, address gender disparities in agriculture and rural communities and sustain increased investment in a holistic, agrifood transition.
“The Russia-Ukraine war will impact global food security over months — if not years,” said CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director and lead author Alison Bentley. “We now need to move beyond defining the problem to implementing practical actions to ensure stable supply, safeguard the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people and bring resilience to our global agrifood system.”
Image Credit: The Sainsbury Laboratory. Source: Kai Sonder, Frédéric Baudron, & Alison Bentley. (2022, April 19). Russia-Ukraine-War.wheat: facts & figures. Zenodo.
This article was originally posted by our partner, The Sainsbury Laboratory here.