Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could spark global food riots — the solution is precision fermentation
By Nafeez Ahmed
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about to set in motion a chain of feedback effects leading to a sudden, rapid escalation of global political instability. Various UN agencies, and now the IMF, have warned of social unrest at a similar scale to the ‘Arab Spring’ events in 2011. What few understand is the role of key technology disruptions in driving these processes, and helping us solve for them.
A new era of unrest
In addition to being the world’s top oil and gas exporter, Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter, and Ukraine the fifth. Together Russia and Ukraine account for some 30% of the world’s traded wheat. But they are also major suppliers of other crops as well as fertilizer — including 53% of the global trade in sunflower and seeds.
That’s why the UN’s Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) has warned that the war in Ukraine could lead to a shortfall in wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine that could trigger a 20% rise in global food prices, amidst soaring fertilizer prices. With food prices already having spiked on the back of rising energy prices, the war has intensified the inflationary impact on food prices.
The regions most dependent on food exports from Russia and Ukraine will be most impacted: Asia-Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and the Near East and North Africa. This could lead the numbers of undernourished to rise by 13 million people next year. But it could further create an arc of instability and social upheaval across these regions.
A global food crisis driving food price hikes previously played a key role in triggering spates of civil unrest across the Middle East and North Africa around 2007–2008, and then again around 2010–2011. Compelling data suggests a clear correlation between social unrest and food prices.
The UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has pointed out that low-income countries are the most vulnerable. From 2018 to 2020, Africa imported $3.7 billion in wheat (32 per cent of total African wheat imports) from Russia and another $1.4 billion from Ukraine (12 per cent of total African wheat imports). As many as 25 African countries, including many least developed countries, import more than a third of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, with 15 importing over half.
UNCTAD further identifies 19 countries in almost every region — Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa — which it describes as being on the “frontline” of the risk of food supply shocks.
That’s why the UNCTAD report warns: “The risk of civil unrest, food shortages and inflation-induced recessions cannot be discounted, particularly given the fragile state of the global economy and the developing world as a result of the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) pandemic.”
And it’s not just food, but also transport. The UNCTAD report outlines how the conflict is forcing carriers to take longer routes. This, along with higher energy prices, is leading to increased spending on fuel. Together, the result is a reduction in global air freight capacity and higher air cargo prices. “On top of this, already expensive and overstretched maritime trade will find it difficult to replace these suddenly unviable land and air routes”, the report observes.
In other words, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated chaos in the energy, food and transport sectors.
The role of disruption
The Russia-Ukraine conflict brings home how tightly interconnected our social, geopolitical, economic, energy and food systems really are. But the role of technology disruption in this process is rarely understood. This also means that both the systemic drivers and systemic solutions to the crisis are largely overlooked.
As I laid out in a previous analysis, RethinkX’s co-founders Tony Seba and James Arbib had foreseen an escalating risk of a military crisis involving Russia in the 2020s. They did so based on looking through the lens of disruption.
Russia, they told US military leaders in 2016, could become a flashpoint because of the impact of unfolding energy and transport disruptions (solar, wind and battery, and electric vehicles) on global fossil fuel demand. That in turn would undermine the biggest source of Russian state revenues. Given that Russia’s oligarchic structure depends on these revenues, their escalating disappearance through the 2020s because of the disruptions would in effect pose an existential risk to the Russian state.
This framework does not provide a specific explanation for the war in Ukraine, but a context to understand the region’s increasing vulnerability to violence as the status quo unravels.
On this basis, at RethinkX we’ve argued that the war in Ukraine is not ultimately a symbol of Russian strength, but a symptom of decline. Instead of consolidating the sources of Russian state power, the war has undermined them by prompting its clients in Europe to accelerate their diversification away from dependence on Russian oil and gas. This has led countries like Germany to bring forward plans to roll out clean energy and transport.
The vicious cycle of incumbent decline
This feedback loop of decline is a familiar story when it comes to disruption.
Incumbent industries tend to double down on the structures that used to work when faced with disruption. But what used to work doesn’t work anymore as disruptors scale with exponentially improving costs and capabilities through their own feedback loop along the s-curve of mass adoption, based on technologies that the incumbents simply don’t understand. The Russia-Ukraine conflict exemplifies these dynamics in fascinating ways.
The same pattern of disruption has occurred many times throughout human history. As costs of new technology fall, adoption follows an s-curve over the course of just 10–20 years. The first phase of the s-curve is characterized by accelerating (or “exponential”) growth, driven by self-reinforcing feedback loops that make the new technology increasingly more competitive while simultaneously making the old technology increasingly less competitive.
These feedback loops of accelerating adoption for disruptors and spiralling decline for incumbents are interconnected. And as social, economic, and geopolitical systems are not separate but interconnected, this means that these feedback loops will have cascading social, economic and geopolitical consequences.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis, in other words, is part of a much wider process of disruption of the energy, transport and food systems. This cycle of chaos is symptomatic of the accelerating feedback loops of decline, as incumbent energy, transport and food industries — and the geopolitical structures they are intertwined with — enter into a vortex of irreversible decline.
The global food crisis being sparked by the Russia-Ukraine crisis must therefore be recognized as a part of this wider process in which incumbent industries are facing obsolescence, and along with the geopolitical and economic structures with which they are intertwined.
Collapse or transformation?
Our research shows that SWB in energy, EVs, A-EVs and transport-as-a-service (Taas) in transport, as well as precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA) in food, are on track to become, overall, ten times cheaper than incumbent energy, transport and food industries over the next two decades.
The energy and transport disruptions have played a key role in setting the groundwork for Russia’s economic vulnerability as demand for its core fossil fuel export commodities has declined, and will continue to decline as solar, wind, batteries (SWB) and electric vehicles (EV) overtake markets. In turn, Russia has responded to the specter of decline with regressive geopolitical responses based on traditional methods of imperial control to shore-up its declining military and economic power.
This highlights both the risks and opportunities of the current moment. If societies choose to respond to the current crises with more of what they already know — more oil and gas, more conventional agriculture, more traditional shipping, and more conflict and violence — the danger is that they get locked into a feedback loop of accelerating decline, which results in collapse.
We are already entering a self-reinforcing cycle of escalating prices in energy, transport and food as global geopolitics enters a dangerous new era of tension and volatility. But if we understand this moment correctly, we can make much better choices.
As James Arbib and Tony Seba show in Rethinking Humanity , the disruptions will enable the clean, decentralized production of energy, transport and food by individuals, households, and communities at a fraction of today’s costs — potentially paving the way for a new era of prosperity and environmental regeneration: an “Age of Freedom”.
Driven by economic factors, these disruptions are inevitable — but how we respond to them, whether we resist them and attempt to shore-up the old declining industries, or leverage them to accelerate a transformation of our societies, is up to us.
If crises like the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalate out of control, the results could abort the Age of Freedom, leading civilization to decline and collapse.
This highlights the real systemic solution to these escalating crises: not to do more of the same, not to cling to the declining industries and political structures with which they are interlinked — but to accelerate the energy, transport and food disruptions while redesigning our societies to harness their maximum potential and distribute the benefits as widely as possible.
The PF solution
For countries facing the brunt of the energy, transport and food crises that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is escalating, the disruptions therefore offer real-world practical solutions: the possibility of energy abundance and resilience, a clean and safe transport infrastructure, and nutritious and tasty food, all being produced locally and cheaply using the most advanced technologies available, providing far more skilled jobs and opportunities than ever before.
Countries that are dependent on increasingly expensive imports of gas and wheat can now envisage a different reality grounded not in far-fetched futuristic technofixes, but in existing technologies that are already scaling. Expensive food imports can be replaced with local precision fermentation (PF) production hubs, allowing people to program micro-organisms to brew proteins with precise taste, texture and nutritional qualities. These hubs can be powered by clean electricity through SWB — which if deployed optimally by overbuilding solar and wind will generate vast quantities of surplus energy at near zero marginal costs for most of the year.
Technology cost curve data shows PF is experiencing exponential cost and capability improvements similar to those experienced in the energy sector. In just three years, as RethinkX projected in Rethinking Food & Agriculture — the seminal report which first coined the term ‘precision fermentation’ and identified its core business model — PF will become cost-competitive with bulk animal protein. Then by 2030 it will be five times cheaper, and ten times cheaper by 2035 — before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar. The global scientific community is finally taking note: the UN IPCC’s latest report on climate mitigation acknowledges the benefits of PFCA while citing RethinkX’s report.
The year 2025, then, constitutes the rupture point for the food disruption — after which PF will become increasingly cheaper than the conventional livestock industry. PF will also be up to 100 times more land efficient, 10–25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient than animal products and they will also produce an order of magnitude less waste. This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.
A further study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that PF powered by clean electricity systems is more efficient than conventional agriculture. For each kilo of protein produced, solar-powered microbes require only 10% of the land area compared to even the most efficient plant crop — soybean. The study calculated that even in northern climates with less sunshine, the yields of solar-powered microbial foods could far outproduce staple crops, while minimizing water and fertilizer use. Importantly, this production could also be located in regions not suitable for agriculture, such as deserts — meaning that many of the arid regions across the Middle East and North Africa most vulnerable to the current crisis would be able to produce their own food using PF, ending reliance on volatile food exports.
The latest data thus shows that PFCA will potentially make high quality nutritious protein-based foods cheaply available within planetary boundaries, while disrupting conventional livestock industries. This in turn will help wipe out carbon emissions from livestock agriculture, while also freeing up vast areas of land for rewilding and carbon sequestration. In this way, leveraging the PFCA disruption would enable a rapid phase out of animal agriculture which could in turn stabilise greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68 percent of CO2 emissions this century.
All this represents an unprecedented opportunity. Lower income countries that are currently vulnerable to food supply shocks can create not just food security through the creation of decentralised, local PF production hubs, but also new-found prosperity through the establishment of high-technology jobs and enterprises. And they can free themselves of dependence on expensive oil and gas imports by deploying clean SWB electricity systems which can be scaled up far more rapidly than is often assumed. The 2022 European Electricity Review by energy think-tank Ember that by scaling up renewables, Netherlands and Spain were able to cut reliance on gas by 20% within just two years.
This pathway would allow dozens of vulnerable countries across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond to break free of their dependence on Russia’s fossil fuel and agricultural monopolies. It could help shatter the link once and for all between volatile food prices and civil unrest — because the entire food system would begin to change. And it would help usher in a new era where the elimination of global hunger and poverty are not just lofty pipe-dreams, but tangible goals which we are well on way to achieving here and now.