PRESERVING ORGANIC FARMING TO ENSURE GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY
TURNING CRISIS INTO POTENTIAL FOR UKRAINE, ITALY, AND THE EU
“People are a mirror image of the soil they live on. When soil is degraded people are poor and malnourished”, Rattan Lal used to say.
If we think about it, the results of biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and impoverishment are always replicated at the human level, with wars and conflicts affecting families and entire, leading to mass-scale displacement and migration. If food sustainability means food security, it is crucial to rethink our approach to the Planet and its resources to achieve resilient ecosystems and societies. Short-term financial measures are not enough to deal with the current humanitarian, economic, and overall environmental crises. What we need are long-term plans of action which can reconsider the relationship between humans and the environment on the whole.
Food, as the first and most essential nexus between humanity and nature (especially soils), can represent the leverage to restore integral ecological regeneration. Increasing studies already confirm the advantages of regenerative agriculture and organic farming, which can be found in their fundamental mitigation and adaptation roles in fighting climate change, higher levels of micronutrients compared to conventional agriculture, stronger ecological services in the medium-long term, and even greater benefits for the local community.
Starting from sustainable food production and the exchange of regenerative practices, people can learn how to gather and reconnect to both Nature and human values.
LEARNING FROM ORGANIC FOOD PRODUCTION IN UKRAINE
So much has been said about Ukraine in recent months, a country hard hit by an unfair war that is undermining its entire environment, people, and economy. At the same time, too little is being stressed about Ukraine’s potential and initiative in organic food production. Despite the first organic production in Ukraine dating back to the late 70s of the last century, Ukrainian organic production already started undergoing active development at the beginning of the 2000s. Southern regions of Ukraine, such as Crimea, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Zaporizhzhia, all historically significant agricultural areas, are the most involved in this development process largely due to their access to the sea.
According to the monitoring in 2020, the total area of organic and in-conversion agricultural land in Ukraine was 462 thousand hectares, just 1.1% of the total agricultural land in Ukraine, and involved 419 agricultural organic producers. This data provides a snapshot of a market that sustains the national economy of the country, given that the Ukrainian domestic organic market reached 25.1 million USD (without imported products) in 2020. Dairy products have been ranked first in consumption and are estimated to be about 65% of the total consumption of organic products, with the greatest demand being for milk and butter. In second place, in terms of consumption (18%), are cereals and grains, including flour and seeds, with the greatest demand in this category for cereals and groats.
This progress has been possible because of the solid organic sector in Ukraine, and producers believe in the development of organic agriculture. Organic legislation was elaborated last year but still isn’t implemented. At the same time, steps have been taken to establish state support for organic producers in Ukraine, even though they are not yet fully implemented. «The National Economic Strategy until 2030», for example, aims to convert at least 3% of the total area of agricultural lands in Ukraine into organic production lands by 2020. In addition, in early 2020, Ukraine’s government declared its intention to join the European Green Deal, the European strategy to transition to more sustainable economic models, improve communal well-being and health, and reach climate neutrality by 2050. To align itself with the European Strategy, the Ukrainian agricultural sector started to develop climate-oriented agriculture, including organic farming and low till technologies, one of its flagship initiatives.
What is relevant to mention here, beyond the state of organic farming, is the future potential that the country offers. In fact, Ukraine has a huge capacity to expand organic production and to use minimum soil disturbance technologies on a broader scale. According to the studies undertaken within the “Assessment of Ukraine’s Technological Needs” project, organic production alone may cover up to 4 million hectares, reaching up to 10 million hectares with the use of minimum soil disturbance technologies.
LOCAL CONFLICT, GLOBAL EFFECTS
The country-wide detrimental effects of the 2022 war, from environmental, human, and economic standpoints, are visibly apparent. Organic production, organic certified lands, and even organic farmers are not exempted from this upsetting trend.
With areas (Oblasts) such as Kherson, one of the most extended organic agricultural lands in Ukraine with its almost 82 thousand hectares, and Zaporizhzhia being currently occupied by the Russian troops, and other areas such as Mykolaiv and Odesa stuck in a war zone, the sowing campaign is a bit difficulty due to the lack of available organic production land. This inevitably also affects organic farmers and all those individuals that rely on food production for their survival.
During the first month, after the beginning of the invasion, 30% of the agri-food operators said they had already suspended their business, and 15% were on the verge of it. Now the situation is changing and producers after de-occupation of the territories restart their business.
Yet the effects of the war are not related only to Ukraine. As we know, Ukraine is a leading global supplier of agricultural products and plays an important role in ensuring a sustainable food system and global food security, given its extended territory (603.6 thou sq. km), the significant share of agricultural land (about 70% of the country’s total area), its strategic geographical location, and labor resources for farming.
For these reasons, the Ukrainian crisis has quickly affected the entire global agrifood sector as a whole. With a specific look at the European effects, Ukraine ranked 4th among 123 countries by volume of organic products imported into the EU, with a share of 7.8%. In 2020, Ukraine exported 217,210 tons of organic products to the EU out of 332,000 tons, the total organic export from Ukraine in 2020. However, given the current war, soybeans, honey, fruit and vegetables, animal and vegetable fats, wheat and other cereals, and oilseeds, for which Ukraine is the largest exporter to the EU, are all products that Europe can no longer import, triggering global fears of food insecurity and shaking the equilibria of global and regional food trade, especially for Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, and Lithuania — the major importing countries from Ukraine within the European Union.
THE HUMAN CRISIS BEYOND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
The impact of the Ukrainian crisis is not exclusively environmental, but also humanitarian. People, Planet, Prosperity, Partnership, and Peace, as the Agenda 2030 teaches us, are interconnected dimensions that need to be addressed simultaneously as one fundamental priority.
First of all, the migration of Ukrainian refugees will have a significant impact on the development of organic production, especially on the domestic market. There are now about 7.7 million internally displaced persons and, according to the UN, more than 5.7 million refugees have left Ukraine. Most of them belong to the active population with children, which represents the main consumers of organic products. This aspect, together with lower household incomes, inevitably affects the production and consumption of organic products, which is why producers are calling for new chains of distribution to face the products’ demand decline.
In addition, human challenges are now evident also at a global scale. Shortage of energy supplies, given the high rates of imported Russian oil and gas which account for approximately 95% and 80% of the European needs, are hindering European farmers, who cannot afford the skyrocketing costs of production and the global fertilizer shortage.
According to the studies conducted by the Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics, the main Italian research organization dedicated to agri-food supply chains supervised by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry, the average production costs triggered by the current war in Ukraine in agricultural areas range between 15,000–17,000€ per farm in Italy. All while agricultural labor shortages further undermine harvesting and food security. As a consequence, Italian Farmers’ Associations such as Coldiretti already warn about the need for at least 100,000 seasonal workers to guarantee summer harvest fields.
FOOD DIPLOMACY: THE POWER OF RECONNECTING FRAGMENTED PIECES
The global food system today is made of several paradoxes and fragmented pieces that demand greater connection.
- Ukrainian producers continue to grow organic (except in occupied territories) and most of them will continue, but at the same time we are calling but they are calling for a stronger ecological transition starting from the agrifood systems.
- We are assisting mass-scale migration of families and farmers while countries like Italy are desperately demanding for agricultural workers.
- Silos in Odesa are full of food that cannot be exported, while the world is at risk of a food shortage crisis.
- The European Union is calling for collective effort to achieve the targets and goals included in its Farm to Fork Strategy, Biodiversity Strategy, and EU Green Deal. At the same time, individual states such as Ukraine are already adapting their national legislation to fully align with the EU goals, despite not being officially part of it. In fact, the Ukrainian legislation in organic production, circulation, and labeling of organic products was originally developed in line with the provisions of the European Regulations (834/2007, 889/2008, and 1235/2008). And the harmonization of the Ukrainian organic legislation with the new EU organic legislation has already been planned.
The common goal and vision of using food sustainability to build food security and peace are, indeed, the fil rouge that connects Ukraine with Europe and makes us all part of one big mission which starts with the Integral Regeneration of food.
This means using food diplomacy and strategies as tools to build bridges of collaboration and mutual help, rather than simply “mitigating conflicts.” It means fostering harmonized policies that are able to be rooted in and tailored to the specific needs of the people they address. “If we fully embrace the power of solidarity, we can progress and face the current threats in Europe to provide food security and sustainability,” reported Mr. Janusz Wojciechowski, EU Commissioner for Agriculture on the occasion of the recent EU RegenerAction event, coordinated by the Future Food Institute and the European Commission to adapt future EU policies to real and tangible needs. In this sense, merging sustainability with security, resilience, and collaboration is key to shaping our future global ecosystems.
The creation of a Lab of Peace in Pollica, in the heart of the Mediterranean Basin, aims to implement this form of diplomacy. A kind of diplomacy born from the grassroots of society and relies on food, as a way to strengthen the dialogue between people, food, and the environment. Pollica’s Lab of Peace has been the result of the diplomatic effort of the Ukrainian public relations regional coordinator of the Commissioner for Human Rights Verkhovna Rada, Mariia Novitska, the President of the Ukrainian-Italian Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Massimo Ferrara, the Future Food Institute, Mygrants, a BCorp working on the integration of migrants and refugees, along with European and Italian organizational representative. This project landed in Pollica, a small rural village which has been recognized as an Emblematic Community of the Mediterranean Diet and the City of Women. In this way, Ukrainian women and youth will be offered the opportunity to experience the Mediterranean Diet in practice, by growing an edible garden and orchard for their own food production, acquire skills that may lead to job opportunities in the future, and exchange their knowledge and competences with the local community in Pollica.
This is the regenerative potential of food that we need to reawaken: the power of unity despite differences, of g-local policies, of widespread collaboration and regeneration, that starts from the Planet intersecting with people and economies.
Ukraine’s recovery should not be a return to the pre-war status but a full-fledged redevelopment and integration into the European Community based on sustainable development principles, taking into account the European Green Deal also as a guarantee of meeting the Copenhagen criteria for Ukraine’s real access to the EU.
Breaking and separating ceramic into different pieces and parts, then bringing such sections together, the pottery not only gains a new life but becomes even more valuable precisely because of its scars. The art of embracing damage, going beyond it, and discovering the potential of adversities can turn challenges and crises into incredible opportunities. This is the action we are called to take today, a lesson rooted also in the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi.
I am truly thankful to the co-author of this article, Kateryna Shor, Project Manager at Information Center Green Dossier, an environmental NGO established in Ukraine in 1994 and National Coordinator in Ukraine OT4D Program at IFOAM — Organics International.
The Future Food Institute is an international ecosystem that believes climate change is at the end of your fork. By harnessing the power of its global ecosystem of partners, innovators, researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs, FFI aims to sustainably improve life on Earth through the transformation of global food systems.
FFI catalyzes progress towards the UN Agenda 2030 of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by training the next generation of changemakers, empowering communities, and engaging government and industry in actionable impact-driven innovation grounded in integral ecological regeneration.