How the annihilation of Ukraine’s agricultural production affects the world, according to a new network model

Moritz Laber working on computer tool
A visualization of a new multi-layered network model illustrates how complete loss of one agricultural product in one country impacts other countries. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Russia-Ukraine war causes not only stark losses in the supply of staple grains and dietary oils to parts of the world, but also a significant reduction in the production of other foods dependent on them such as poultry and pork, a new study shows.

Ukraine, which is often called “the world’s bread basket,” is one of the world’s largest producers of barley, maize, wheat and sunflower seed oil. The conflict has affected both agricultural production and exports of these staple crops, leading to supply shortages across borders and sharp food price increases globally. 

International organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been alerting the international community of the imminent global food crisis threat and repeating calls for supporting the most vulnerable countries. 

Now, a new tool, developed by an international group of scientists and members of the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Austria, including Moritz Laber, a doctoral student in Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, can predict exactly how localized food production shocks like the war in Ukraine might affect individual countries in the world. 

Their new multilayered network model estimates not only the resulting losses for direct trade between countries, but also indirect effects on interconnected production of other food products in different countries.

“Using this methodology to look at the spreading of these shocks on trade layers and the effect of one product on another product as an integrated system on a global scale, is pretty novel,” Laber says.

Using the Russia-Ukraine war as a case study, researchers found that a complete agricultural production loss in Ukraine can directly cause up to an 89% loss in sunflower oil and 85% in maize globally as well as up to a 25% loss in poultry meat production.

“The research project itself started before the war in Ukraine started,” Laber says. “But when this conflict began, it was clear that this is a really important application case of such a model.”

Based on the model, the scientists also created a visual representation of how complete losses in agricultural production of one of 125 food products in one country impacts 191 countries and territories. The visualization right away allows users to see which countries are affected most severely.

The study shows that the extent of dependency on Ukraine varies between the regions of the world. The war strongly affects Southern Europe where 19 out of 125 products have losses of more than 10%.

Western Asia and Northern Africa would lose more than 10% on 15 and 11 products, respectively. In contrast, North America and Australia are least affected.

While the full loss of maize production in Ukraine affects Northern and Southern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa the most, the full loss of sunflower seed oil sends shock waves from Europe and Africa to the Caribbean Islands to Southeast and East Asia to the Oceania.

The study highlights the multilayered nature of trade and production networks. The shock to Ukrainian fodder maize influences the availability of pig and poultry meat in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. 

The shocks spread through multiple different channels and shock transmission from a local crisis to the rest of the network unfolds for a period of time. It may take several years until the total production losses can be observed in full in the model, according to the study.

The scientists reason that high-income countries will be able to mitigate the losses by tapping into reserves or switching suppliers in spite of possible higher costs. Middle- and low-income countries will be likely unable to mitigate the losses, as food security had already been critical due to supply-chain disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events and local conflicts. 

Armed conflict, Laber says, is only one cause among many possible causes of shocks to the global food system. Climate-change related issues, droughts and other extreme weather events or food pests are becoming increasingly likely causes of food supply shortages. 

The model represents a worst-case scenario of a complete and sustained production loss and is likely to overestimate real losses. Nevertheless, the results of the study might inform crisis response by providing estimates for the losses incurred in individual countries unless they make substitution efforts or consider other mitigation measures.

Raising awareness for the multidimensional systemic risk incorporated in the global trade and production of food, researchers hope, can help design more resilient supply chains.

“You can flip it around and say ‘I am a country, on whom do I depend?’” Laber says. “Especially with global crises like pandemics or climate change and related extreme weather events, you could ask, ‘Who are my suppliers? Where do I have to look out or search alternatives.’” 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.