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How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will worsen global hunger

‘All these shocks can bring people closer to the cliff.’

A combine harvests wheat in a field in the Kyiv region, in 2020. Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS
A combine harvests wheat in a field in the Kyiv region, in 2020.

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From higher prices in nations already struggling with hunger crises – such as Yemen and Lebanon – to reduced harvests in disaster-prone Bangladesh, the food impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely be long-lasting and felt across continents, economists and aid officials warn. 

Particularly concerning, they say, is that they’re coming on top of fast-rising global food prices – now at their highest levels in a decade – and with supply chains already stressed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and years of growing climate impacts.

Ukraine, often called the breadbasket of Europe, is home to a third of the world’s most fertile soil. It is also a world leader in the production of sunflower oil, barley, and maize, and – together with Russia – provides a third of global wheat supplies. 

The invasion has come “just as the growth and planting season starts” in Ukraine and Russia, said Thomas Ølholm, a regional food security adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “Many fields [in Ukraine] will not be maintained or planted. Many agricultural smallholders will be affected and lose their livelihoods for a period of time, or permanently.”

Beyond the unfolding humanitarian crisis for Ukrainians, the wider fallout – from regional port closures, large-scale displacement within and out of Ukraine, and crippling economic sanctions on Russia – could be far-reaching and devastating, especially for poor consumers in countries dependent on food imports, according to experts.

“Governments need to do everything in their power to ensure food security for Ukrainian citizens, and step up social protections to insulate vulnerable people from rising food prices.”

Encompassing Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and parts of Russia and Turkey, the broader Black Sea region “is critical for the food security in the Mediterranean area but also in the Middle East and North Africa, western Asia, and up to Pakistan,” David Laborde, senior research fellow at the Washington DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and co-author of a recent paper outlining the threats to global food security, told The New Humanitarian.  

Preventing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine from setting off a full-blown global food crisis will require channelling more funds into food assistance in the countries likely to be hardest hit, as well as ensuring that the sanctions imposed on Russia do not affect the countries relying on the Russian economy to feed their citizens, experts said. 

“Governments need to do everything in their power to ensure food security for Ukrainian citizens, and step up social protections to insulate vulnerable people from rising food prices,” said Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. 

De Schutter said the crisis calls for a re-think of current food production and consumption models. “To build resilience to these shocks, countries ultimately need to reduce their dependence on imports of just a few key agricultural commodities, by diversifying their own local food production and food supply chains,” he told The New Humanitarian.

Impacts on many levels

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, emeritus professor of rural sociology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said the impacts of the invasion will be felt across a spectrum of settings, with effects ranging from the problematic to the disastrous.

Firstly, poor people who generally spend a considerable percentage of their income on food will now find themselves even more stretched. Secondly, although it’s difficult to draw a straight line, Van der Ploeg suggested that rising food prices – layered on top of other economic, social, and political frustrations – could help fuel social unrest, as happened across the Arab world in 2011.

“Thirdly, there are war-stricken areas and countries, like Yemen, eastern Africa, the north of Mozambique, Mali, and Myanmar,” he said. “Here, the combination of violence, hunger, and little or no possibilities to intervene with humanitarian help will be disastrous.”

There could also be longer-term impacts on agricultural productivity due to a lack of fertilisers, warned IFPRI’s Laborde. 

Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of fertilisers and related raw materials, including natural gas, potash, and ammonia. Belarus, a key Russian ally, accounts for an additional 16 percent of global market share of potash exports, he added. Fertiliser was already in short supply, and costs were soaring, even before the latest crisis. 

If fertiliser shortages continue in 2022, it spells trouble for 2023, especially in countries such as Bangladesh, which buys large amounts from the Black Sea for its smallholder farmers, according to Laborde. Higher costs will lead to less fertiliser use, resulting in lower yields for staple crops such as rice, impoverishing farmers and turning them from net sellers of rice to net buyers, he said, adding: “All these shocks can bring people closer to the cliff.”

‘Food poverty’ in the Middle East

Parts of the Middle East and North Africa are expected to be hit particularly hard by the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion. Drought-affected countries in the region were expected to import record amounts of wheat this year, according to crop forecaster Gro Intelligence. But these plans are likely to unravel as a result of the Ukraine situation. 

“For some countries in the Middle East region, this conflict could drive millions of people into food poverty.”

Hunger levels in the Middle East and North Africa have already more than doubled since two decades ago, according to the UN’s latest regional overview. In 2020, there were 69 million hungry people in the region, up more than 90 percent since 2000. The latest figure is “close to the peak of 2011 when the region suffered from a major shock due to uprisings”, the report added.

“For some countries in the Middle East region, this conflict could drive millions of people into food poverty,” warned Abeer Etefa, senior spokesperson for Middle East & North Africa for the World Food Programme (WFP). 

In particular, countries such as Iraq, which has one of the world’s largest government-run food programmes, and Yemen – which imports 90 percent of its food needs (and half of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia) – face higher costs and worsening food insecurity, she said. 

Lebanon, meanwhile, relies on Ukraine for up to 60 percent of its wheat and has only about a month’s worth of reserves, the country’s economy minister has said

“We don’t have enough food now [in the Middle East]. This is going to compound the situation,” David Beasley, WFP’s executive director, said in a video posted Monday. “It is going to be, and it is, catastrophic.”

Meanwhile, climate change is affecting food production around the world, too.

In Latin America, where hunger has been rising faster than anywhere, the La Niña weather phenomenon has significantly reduced soybean returns, while droughts have slashed wheat harvests in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, according to IFPRI’s Laborde. 

Food production in Europe is also heavily dependent on imported fertiliser, natural gas, and animal feed from Ukraine and Russia, according to EU officials and parliamentarians. For example, 22 percent of corn imported to Spain comes from Ukraine. 

“European countries, too, will not be spared – especially by rapidly escalating energy prices that will drive up the cost of basic food commodities,” said Gabriel Ferrero, chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), a top-level UN forum. “This is not just a problem between Russia and Ukraine; it is a problem for all of us.”

Time to change the system?

Yet the current crisis is not a surprise, and governments and donors could have been better prepared, said Ølholm from the NRC. “All signs were indicating an armed conflict. [It] was predictable,” he said. “Prepositioning of critical and lifesaving inputs/assets could have been put in place if there was a will to do it and not least fund it.” 

IFPRI’s Laborde also said there could have been better coordination with big commodity traders and companies around logistics and food supply. “It kind of reminds me of the first months of COVID, where governments were taking decisions without any coordination with the business sector,” he said. “Everyone was trying to deal with the crisis on his own instead of having a coordinated plan.” 

For Van der Ploeg, “the fact that most countries in the world depend on food imports for feeding their population” has created “a web of dependencies”.

“This web is basically controlled by a small set of large and powerful food empires,” he said, adding that “food sovereignty comes to the fore as the most important beacon for agricultural and rural development policies” in the future. 

Read more → Billions pledged and awareness raised, but UN food summit fails to heal divisions

Edward Davey, international engagement director of the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), said the Russia-Ukraine crisis – as well as the latest findings of the world’s top climate scientists – both point to the need for a global structure “where nations could come together at the highest level to predict and forestall, and improve the resilience of the food system”. 

“I’d like to call for global efforts to try and get ahead of the next 10 crises, conflict, COVID, inequality, climate, vis-a-vis the food system,” he said.

Edited by Eric Reidy and Andrew Gully.

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