Ukrainian conflict underlines fragility of global food security

We have become used to eating certain foods all year round but there are threats to supply other than war

During a recent period of coronavirus self-isolation, I ordered an online grocery delivery. The supermarket website warned that, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, some items such as sunflower oil were in short supply.

The sunflower is Ukraine's most poignant national symbol, and its fields of sunflowers under the blue sky are reflected in the colours of its flag. But its importance is not merely symbolic; its seeds and oils are the country's largest export. Ukraine is the world's largest producer of sunflower oil and alongside second-placed Russia produces about 60 per cent of the global total.

Potential shortages of sunflower oil, and other important crops grown in the region such as wheat and corn, are a reminder of how globalised our food supply chains are. We have become used to eating large quantities of certain foods year-round. Asparagus and strawberries, for instance, are available outside of their Irish growing seasons. But this system is vulnerable to human activity. As well as war, anthropogenic climate change also threatens production of foodstuffs such as avocado, coffee and wine, which are vulnerable to disease.

It was not until the advent of refrigeration, steamships and rail that bananas could be reliably transported to European and American markets before they spoiled

One popular food that has been dramatically affected by both war and disease is the banana. Today it is ubiquitous, our most popular fruit with 4.5 million bananas travelling through Cork every week and Tesco selling 70 million bananas in Ireland annually. Irish company Fyffes is one of the world's largest banana traders, and recently opened a €25 million ripening facility in Balbriggan. While the banana has been cultivated in its native southeast Asia and Australasia for thousands of years, and in other tropical regions since at least the medieval era, it was not widely known in Ireland until the late 19th century.



It was not until the advent of refrigeration, steamships and rail that bananas could be reliably transported to European and American markets before they spoiled. Previously they arrived only in small numbers and were grown in small numbers in hothouses by enterprising gardeners for wealthy patrons. By the 1870s, huge banana plantations began to replace sugar fields in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the trade became increasingly industrialised.

One variety, the Gros Michel or “Big Mike”, was favoured because of its thick skin and large bunches. A cultivar, it was grown clonally, meaning it produced only tiny seeds (and therefore more fruit) and identical crops could be grown with little more effort than putting a shoot in suitable soil. It also had high levels of the compound isoamyl acetate, used to impart banana flavour to foods, giving it a distinctive taste.

A Fyffes banana boat, SS Miami, was sunk off the Cork coast in June 1917 by a German U-boat

Banana companies were able to transport vast quantities of fruit across the Atlantic on banana boats. These were refrigerated ships built for speed, often repurposed naval vessels. In the early years of the 20th century, bananas quickly became a favourite fruit in western Europe. In 1911, talented horticulturist William Henry Richardson even managed to grow a plant with hundreds of edible bananas in an east Belfast greenhouse.

Demand for banana imports kept up during the first World War. A Fyffes banana boat, SS Miami, was sunk off the Cork coast in June 1917 by a German U-boat. Despite a surge in the banana trade in the 1920s and 30s, the second World War saw even more submarine warfare, and supplies had already begun to wane when the British government banned banana imports in 1940.

Transatlantic banana shipping

The resumption of transatlantic banana shipping at the end of 1945 saw another boom in trade, which the Gros Michel again dominated. However, being a cultivar gave it a fatal weakness. The genetically identical plants were identically susceptible to disease, and a fungal plague called Panama disease destroyed almost the entire global crop in the 1950s.

Scientists scrambled to find a fungus-resistant cultivar that could quickly replace the Gros Michel as a monoculture. Ironically, one of those enterprising hothouse gardeners provided the answer. In 1835, Joseph Paxton was awarded a Royal Horticultural Society medal for successfully growing a cultivar at Chatsworth House, provided by the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish. This Cavendish cultivar now dominates the global market.

Recently, a new strain of Panama disease has been identified that does affect the Cavendish, and so the global supply of bananas is once again under threat. Hopefully we can avoid letting other favourite foods go the way of the Gros Michel, whether through war, monoculture, or global warming.

Dr Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dublin City University school of history and geography