By Lantao Li*
The large-scale war that erupted between Russia and Ukraine, the two major grain-producing countries, undoubtedly will impact the global food market. However, it would be insufficient to use simple quantitative analyses to assess its effect on the global grain trade. It is only through an all-rounded interpretation of the grain production cycle and the supply structure can we truly recognize the complexity of the problem.
Quantity-wise, Russia is currently the world’s largest exporter of wheat, accounting for about 16.9% of global exports in 2021. The combined annual wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine (about 60 million tons) are equivalent to 30% of the world’s total exports. Corn exports of the two countries (about 38 million tons) accounted for 20% of the total global exports. Ukraine, in particular, exported 23.1 million tons of corn, 16.6 million tons of wheat, and 4.2 million tons of barley in 2020/2021, making it the world’s second-largest grain exporter after the United States in total exports of all grains. In addition to barley, Russia and Ukraine provide one-third of the world’s grain exports. Such a huge volume is the reason the market is highly concerned about the security of the global food supply.
It should be noted that the key window times for wheat and corn exports from the Black Sea region are August to October and October to May of the following year. The majority of the grain produced in the previous year has already been sold by Russia and Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, it has been stated that 7 million tons of wheat and 12 million tons of corn are still awaiting delivery. Ukraine’s foreign shipping has been halted, and traders are attempting to arrange for grain exports via train through the country’s western border, but transportation capacity is limited, implying that the short-term market supply gap caused by the Russia-Ukraine war could be in the range of 20 million tons.
If solely grain production, stock, and demand are evaluated at this scale, ignoring trade and geopolitical variables, the EU and India can compensate for wheat, while the U.S. and Argentina can compensate for corn. In the short-term future, there will be no big issues with food supplies. According to USDA estimates released in March, wheat stocks in the United States and India could reach as high as 17.63 million tons and 26.1 million tons, respectively, by the end of 2021/2022. Current global grain prices continue to rise and reach a record high, owing to market concerns over current inventories and future supplies, causing futures prices to overshoot to some extent.
However, in the medium and long-term production problems, such as transportation and sales problems, and other issues, as well as geopolitical factors such as the probable continuation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the global grain trade will experience a more significant impact as a result. This situation will cause severe disruption in the USD 120 billion global grain trade market.
In terms of the war’s impact on agricultural production, Ukraine suffered more directly. More than 90% of the crop grown in Ukraine is winter wheat. In this year’s grain production, winter wheat was in the field before the escalation of the situation in Ukraine and will be harvested around July this year. Ukraine will lose an estimated over 20% of its winter wheat production due to its harvesting inability, which is also the impact of the direct damage caused by the war. Judging from the previous information, the domestic fertilizer supply in Ukraine also faces some issues. Since the top-dressing period of Ukrainian winter wheat coincides with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the lack of fertilizer or even the inability to top-dress in time will reduce the yield per unit of winter wheat. Even if it is fully harvested, its total output could be 15% less than that of the previous year. Ukraine’s wheat production in 2021 was about 33 million tons, equivalent to more than 6 million tons of wheat supply if calculated at 20%. The impact of the war on spring planting is likely to be greater, which will severely impact Ukraine’s corn production in 2022. In 2021, Ukraine has replaced Brazil as the world’s third corn exporter, with an export volume of about 32 million tons, accounting for about 16% of the world’s total export volume and 80% of its own corn production. However, according to Ukrainian domestic estimates, the spring planting area completed in Ukraine for this year may even be as low as 50% of the usual year. Even if it is optimistically estimated that Ukraine can achieve 70% of the spring planting area this year, according to Ukraine’s corn production of about 42 million tons in 2021, it will lose more than 10 million tons of external supply.
The direct threat to Russia’s foreign food supply is the imposition of trade and financial sanctions by Europe and the United States, which make it difficult to deliver and pay for its export commodities. However, there is greater uncertainty when it comes to individual operations of this type. For example, Russia’s wheat exports surged by about 60% year on year in March, marking a significant rebound from the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. It should be noted that when faced with external sanctions, Russia tends to “weaponize” grain exports. For example, in addition to recently raising export tariffs, Russia has threatened to restrict grain exports to “unfriendly countries”. Such a constraint on initiative could have much more serious consequences.
From the demand side, Russia and Ukraine may experience a substantial reduction in their foreign grain exports in the future, which will impact the daily food supply in the world, especially in some countries. For example, wheat is the staple food of more than 35% of the world’s population, and it is hard to be replaced easily with another crop in the short term. Russia’s influence on the global grain market also mainly lies in wheat crops. In 2021, wheat exports will be 35 million tons, accounting for about 17% of global exports, second only to the EU. Russian wheat is mainly sold to the Middle East. The top five exporters are Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan, accounting for 25%, 21%, 4%, 3%, and 3% of Russia’s total wheat exports in 2021, respectively. Meanwhile, Ukraine mainly sells its corn to China, Europe, and other countries or region. Its top five exporters in 2020 are China, the Netherlands, Egypt, Spain, and Turkey, accounting for 28%, 11%, 10%, 9%, and 5% of the total Ukrainian corn exports that year, respectively. In 2021, China imported 8.2345 million tons of corn from Ukraine, accounting for 29.0% of China’s total annual imports, making it the second-largest corn importer after the United States. If the grain exports of Russia and Ukraine are reduced or blocked, the above-mentioned relevant countries need to reposition the import direction.
The Russia-Ukraine war will change the total global food supply and the flow of its exports. Besides that, new trade flows come at a cost, whereby the logistics would be more expensive, takes longer transit time, or might affect the quality, which could further accelerate food prices. The war will not only affect the grain exports of the two countries, but also the uncertainties mentioned above have an impact on grain production, transaction, trade, and transportation to a greater extent. It remains unclear whether the tightening of the food market will boost food exports from other countries. As an institutional analysis pointed out, “high prices tend to lead to protectionism, not just an increase in exports”.
*Lantao Li, Graduated from Beijing Normal University in 2013 with a PhD degree of Natural Resources and Harbin Institute of Technology with a bachelor degree of Transportation, is an assistant researcher in macroeconomics at Anbound Consulting which is an independent think tank headquartered in Beijing.