The war in Ukraine and its impact on local and global food security

Results from initial exploration and solution mapping from UNDP Ukraine Accelerator Labs

June 21, 2022

Photo credit: Vitalii Shevelev / UNDP Ukraine

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The Russian military offensive in Ukraine is aggravating hunger throughout the region and threatening food security around the world. This was the topic of concern for the more than 2,500 world leaders and experts who recently met in Davos, Switzerland for the 2022 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

To dive deeper into this growing concern at the local level, UNDP’s Accelerator Lab interviewed a vast cross-section of stakeholders from across the country (farmers, household owners, UN agencies, international projects and organizations, etc). The Lab explored social networks, traditional media, and organized several public online events around the topic. The research contributed to a catalogue of food-related activities/solutions, with a quick trends scan and plans for small scale experiments with bottom-up local Ukrainian food-related solutions.

In summary, while growing hunger is a concern, most Ukrainians are more concerned with price volatility and shortages of products like salt and tomatoes. Many are worried about the unpredictable future to come. As a result, we see a number of food-related initiatives emerging on various levels and in different regions of Ukraine.

Quick trends scan

Local, small-scale initiatives are gaining traction

While big-scale industrial agriculture is being disrupted by supply challenges, damaged infrastructure, mine contamination, closed ports and theft, small and medium scale local food solutions (e.g., SME farmers) are becoming increasingly important and widely discussed in society.

Grassroots (often sustainable) practices receive recognition

Eco-villages, urban and balconies gardens, recipes with wild greens, permaculture activism, food cooperatives, food sharing, food conserving, composting and similar were considered something exotic and unusual. Now eco-villages host displaced people and provide them with land and tools for growing their own food. IDPs from various parts of Ukraine are learning about different sustainability practices they could take with them back home when the war is over.

Back to family food systems

In the 1990s most urban families cultivated gardens (often near their summer house, so called dacha) that provided basic vegetables and greens. Such gardens were located either directly near houses (including multi-apartment) or in the nearby fields and villages. The practice eventually declined as national welfare grew. Now, because of the war, these gardens are returning.

In rural areas, family farmers are also activated and feel the responsibility to make their contribution to national and local food security. However, concurrently, they are not producing at full capacity for fear of not being able to harvest, sell or store their crops.

Internally displaced people and local food initiatives

We see early indications that urban gardening has an enormous potential for strengthening social cohesion between the IDPs and host communities. Several emerging community gardens that join the efforts of IDPs and locals  are creating an atmosphere of unity and solidarity.

Furthermore, early research reveals that gardening can also be an activity that benefits mental health. Some of the IDPs’ shelters started to provide plots for cultivation, giving space for horticultural therapy. Several initiatives specifically provided seeds and seedlings to IDPs, so they kick-started growing, to deal with trauma. At the same time, we see that this kind of activity is relevant to all Ukrainians in the current situation.

Food topics are becoming more popular in public discourse agenda

The research furthermore looked at the growing attention to the food-related initiatives in social and traditional media. One such initiative often emerging in current discourse is Victory Gardens. Also, urban vegetable gardens are being discussed at various events in many cities that have already started planting and growing. However, despite high public attention, there is a need for more practical initiatives on gardening and food security.

Initial ideas behind experiments

The current trends and developments highlighted in the research are very much in line with sustainable development trajectories that emphasize more local, sustainable, and circular economy food production and consumption systems. They also reflect and confirm research calling for more agricultural production that supports social cohesion and improved mental health.

Does this mean Ukraine is on the right track? The research to date is inconclusive, but there are many reasons to assume that when the war is over the country could return to agri-business as usual. The question will be how to sustain the “small is beautiful” scenario whereby small-scale farmers play an important role for local food security and poverty alleviation.

The economist E. F. Schumacher once observed that smaller farms are better for society, for the economy and for the environment. However, larger farms are better able to feed entire regions of people, many of whom may live thousands of kilometers away.  The UNDP Accelerator Lab will continue its research into balancing the benefits of small-scale farming with large-scale needs for regional and global food security.  Current research is focusing on enablers for urban gardening, catalysts for community creation and the factors that contribute to improved mental health in the gardens at shelters. We also will examine small-scale farming support mechanisms.

Stay tuned for updates on our experiments.