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In May, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said:

shortages of grain and fertiliser caused by the war, warming temperatures and pandemic-driven supply problems threaten to “tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity”, as financial markets saw share prices fall heavily again on fears of inflation and a worldwide recession.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine's wheat production is no big deal: only 20 million tons out of 800 million tons produced globally per year.

В мире в год производится примерно 800 млн т зерна. Украина готова экспортировать 20 млн т – это 2,5%. Если мы будем исходить из того, что в общем объеме продовольствия в мире пшеница составляет только 20%, то это значит, что эти 20 млн т украинской пшеницы – 0,5%. Ни о чем.

Translation:

Approximately 800 million tons of grain are produced annually in the world. Ukraine is ready to export 20 million tons, which is 2.5%. If we proceed from the fact that wheat makes up only 20% of the total food supply in the world, this means that these 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat are 0.5%. Not worth speaking of.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stated that Russian blockades have prevented the export of 22 million tons. Global wheat production is 780 million tons.

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  • Might consider adding a note about the size of the export market as it is a lot smaller and a country not exporting has a larger impact there. I know this is paywalled but it might help. statista.com/statistics/237902/….
    – Joe W
    Jun 9 at 15:27
  • This isn't an answer, but it might be worth mentioning that this is happening concurrently with a severe fertilizer shortage. The exports themselves seem like a red herring in this context...
    – 0xDBFB7
    Jun 13 at 14:00
  • 1
    @oddthinking I disagree with your edits. They distort the main point of my question Jun 14 at 13:43
  • 2
    "this means that these 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat are 0.5%. Not worth speaking of." 0.5% of world population are approximately 40 million people. Not worth speaking of?
    – Trilarion
    Jun 22 at 22:43

3 Answers 3

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That claim appears to be misleading as it is talking about overall production and not what gets exported. According to University of California, Davis Russia accounts for 19% of the market and Ukraine 9% which is a much larger number then the given numbers indicate.

We're Not Facing a Global Food Crisis:

Russia produces 11% of the world's wheat and Ukraine produces 3%. These countries make up a larger proportion of global exports. Russia accounts for 19% of the global wheat export market and Ukraine 9%. Ukraine is also a major corn exporter, accounting for 14% of exports. Neither country is a large player in rice or soybeans, which are the other two major agricultural commodities in the world. […]

What if the world has lost access to the 55 million metric tons of wheat and 30 million metric tons of corn exported from Ukraine and Russia? These quantities represent 7.3% of global wheat and 2.6% global corn production.

The first thing that would happen is prices would increase.

Wheat futures prices have increased since the day before the invasion (February 23), but by different amounts depending on variety. Winter wheat is up about 30%, whereas spring wheat is up 10%. Corn prices have increased by 7% since February 23 and soybean prices are unchanged. Winter wheat prices did drift up in the week before the invasion as Russia built its military presence on the border. Since February 14, winter wheat is up about 45%, spring wheat 16%, corn 12%, and soybeans 5%. After looking at it closer it seems that the global export market is much smaller and under 200 tons each year which means that Ukraine makes up a bigger part of the market and has a larger impact.

While they may be a small part over overall production they are a larger part of the export market then would be expected at first glance.

Another source shows that the global wheat export market is much smaller then the market for overall wheat production

Global Wheat Export Market

About 179.5 million metric tons of wheat were exported worldwide in 2018/2019, down from 182.6 million metric tons in the previous year.

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    "Misleading" in what sense?
    – Haukinger
    Jun 9 at 11:38
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    @Haukinger Misleading because they have a much larger impact on the market export wise then they have on it production wise. From the information I linked the export side is about 3 times as big 9% of the world share versus 3% for production.
    – Joe W
    Jun 9 at 12:20
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    It's a statement about the percentage of global food consumed, not about percentage of exported grain worldwide.
    – Haukinger
    Jun 9 at 12:25
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    The statement doesn't even talk about market. It's about getting fed - it says "if everybody got fed with ukrainian wheat, everybody will get fed without it".
    – Haukinger
    Jun 9 at 12:30
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    @Haukinger And that is why I called it misleading and not false. The statement is saying they only produced 20 tons or about 2.5% (with the math given). However when you look at the bigger picture they produce 9% of the global export market which is going to have a larger impact then what it seems. It should be noted Russia is in a similar position where they produce 11% of the market but 19% of the export market. The issue is taking away 9% of the export market is going to have an impact on the global supply and price.
    – Joe W
    Jun 9 at 12:45
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Sarah Taber, who works in industry as a crop consultant, is in agreement with Putin's statement that the shortage itself is "not worth speaking of." She also makes an important point, perpendicular to anything Putin is saying, about the outsize impact of Euro-American fears of a grain shortage. She wrote in March 2022:

My personal favorite Misleading Wheat Stat is "Ukraine/Russia grow 25% of world wheat exports."

Why's it misleading? It's technically true, but doesn't mean what people think!

Missing wheat from the war is actually less than 1% of global wheat crop!

(She provides her data sources in the linked tweet thread.)

She followed up on this with a full-length article in April

Thanks to growing wheat production outside Ukraine, the 2022 world wheat crop is actually expected to exceed consumption for the first time in two years. Worldwide wheat gluts in 2020 led nations to slowly work their way through stockpiles rather than plant large crops. Like droughts, occasional gluts followed by a few years of lower production are a normal part of the global grain trade. The Russian invasion occurred when production was already at a post-glut low and headed for an upswing.

[ . . . ]

In contrast, the West—despite U.S. intelligence warning for months of a Russian invasion—seems to have been taken by surprise by the trade fallout. Government and private bodies alike responded with panic. They could have taken a rational look at grain stocks, harvest forecasts, and the very real supply chain problems for the MENA region and responded accordingly. But instead, Western decision-makers, both private and public, simply started hoarding grain. Panicked brokers with little experience in grain markets drove prices up to untenable levels (nearly $13 a bushel, about 60 pounds of wheat), when experienced crop analysts believe a slightly elevated price of $7.50 to $8 a bushel reflects actual global supply conditions.

[ . . . ]

In the long term, the West needs to reinvest in crop forecasting. The U.S. and other governments used to hire crop scientists to forecast global yields. But they don’t anymore. Wealthy countries have long had enough food that they’ve stopped imagining there could be a problem. And even in the West, autocrats don’t want good information: The Trump administration gutted the U.S. agricultural statistics department because it failed to generate data that supported then President Donald Trump’s claims. Unless rich countries correct course and invest in information and infrastructure, we may yet see famines and toppled governments. And it won’t even be because of supply shortages—but because the finance industry spooked, like a horse that saw a paper bag blowing in the wind and was sure it was a wolf.

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  • While I do agree that we are not facing a crop shortage because of this I do think that it is misleading to only look at the volume that is produced and ignore the exported volume compared to how much the rest of the world exports.
    – Joe W
    Jun 9 at 14:50
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    What exactly is misleading about it? If other countries are not currently exporting, they could conceivably produce more and export a surplus
    – Avery
    Jun 9 at 15:55
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    The current global export market is only around 180 tons, removing 20 tons from the global export market is a bigger impact then removing 20 tons from the total production. I would also note that just because a country is producing more doesn't mean that they have the capacity to export more if someone else stops exporting. I would call using the produced numbers instead of the exported numbers misleading as it does not show how the changes impact the world.
    – Joe W
    Jun 9 at 16:04
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    @JoeW No, it has an impact on the export market only. It cannot affect the domestic supply, though maybe domestic price might increase a bit (basic supply and demand principles). Apparently, what these numbers show is that not a lot of total wheat consumed in the world is imported, but rather is consumed domestically. That seems to matter a lot more than "import markets, which are a tiny fraction of the total market, might feel a hit".
    – fredsbend
    Jun 22 at 23:37
  • @fredsbend Well that depends on each of the local markets themselves. If they produce most of it domestically they should be fine but if they depend on the export market for supply it could be felt by them. My point is that most of Ukraine's supply gets exported and it is a larger percentage of that market then looking at the total production numbers would indicate.
    – Joe W
    Jun 23 at 1:22
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The other answers overlook an important point in Putin claim:

If we proceed from the fact that wheat makes up only 20% of the total food supply in the world, this means that these 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat are 0.5%. Not worth speaking of.

Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, oats and barley. For what matters the other grains they don't appear on the list of major exporters. But the on top of the list of grains production are rice and maize. So the importance of wheat and the other Ukrainian exports and their share on the worldwide markets of cereals has been overstated by the Western media and on this point Putin's claim is way less misleading.

Actually Putin's claim is even too conservative because he said food production, but taking into account only cereals production it is enough to get a less dramatic picture. If we add to the count other staple foods like potato, cassava and pulses the share of wheat becomes much less than the claimed 20% of global food supply.

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