In the modern world, famines are man-made. We produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but hunger grips communities when they cannot access or afford staple foods to keep people alive.
The war in Ukraine is a sombre reminder of this fact and now threatens millions of vulnerable people around the world with starvation.
Ukraine is a critically important breadbasket for the world, exporting tens of millions of tonnes of wheat, maize and barley each year, as well as sunflower seeds used to make vegetable oil. But these commodities have been wiped from food stocks overnight by the blockade of the Odesa-area ports in southern Ukraine.
Global food markets have been plunged into turmoil, with soaring prices, export bans and shortages of basic foodstuffs spreading far from Ukraine’s borders. Nations across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even Latin America are feeling the heat from this conflict.
The threat to global food security is being exacerbated by the upheaval in worldwide fuel and fertiliser markets, as shortages and price spikes sharply reduce access to these vital inputs for farmers on every continent.
Without urgent action, food production and crop yields will be slashed. This raises the frightening possibility that on top of today’s food-pricing crisis, the world will also face a genuine crisis of food availability over the next 12 to 24 months – and with it, the spectre of multiple famines.
Even before this war began, there were 276 million severely hungry people marching towards starvation. The World Food Programme’s latest analysis – completed in the last fortnight – reveals this number has increased to 345 million due to the Ukraine crisis. And a staggering 50 million people in 45 countries are now just one step from famine.
The international community must act to stop this looming hunger catastrophe in its tracks – or these numbers will explode.
First, a political solution must be brokered to get the Odesa-area ports functioning again so Ukrainian wheat and grain can re-enter global markets.
Second, governments must resist protectionism and keep trade flowing across borders. Surpluses and strategic stockpiles of key commodities need to be released to protect the most vulnerable populations from starvation.
Third, donors must commit to meeting urgent humanitarian needs, which are skyrocketing worldwide. The World Food Programme alone is more than $10 billion short of the almost $22 billion required in 2022 to feed those in greatest need in more than 80 countries. This gap, which is widening all the time due to global inflation, urgently needs to be filled.
And fourth, we must learn the lessons of this crisis and invest in sustainable development and resilience-building programmes to protect against future food insecurity. If we had successfully threaded this needle in the past, the war in Ukraine would not be having such a disastrous worldwide impact today.
Modern famines are man-made – but this also means the international community has the ability to avoid them.
As starvation tightens its grip on dozens of nations, we must not allow the war in Ukraine to overwhelm millions of families already trapped in a deadly struggle against hunger. They are relying on us for survival, and we must not let them down.
Executive Director, World Food Programme
More than four months since the start of the war, it is not just the Ukrainian people who are paying the price for Putin’s invasion. Soaring food and energy prices worldwide are threatening to plunge hundreds of millions of people worldwide into poverty and a state of precariousness – and, in the worst case, ignite new conflicts elsewhere. The cost-of-living crisis on our own doorstep has made clear that even the developed world cannot afford to ignore the global fallout of the conflict. But for parts of the developing world, the situation isn’t just serious, it’s desperate. And it’s not a short-term situation either – the international community needs to act now to preempt a pricing crisis that threatens to play out or even escalate over years to come.
Russia and Ukraine – known collectively as “the world’s breadbasket” – normally account for almost a third of the world’s wheat exports and 80 per cent of sunflower-oil exports. Russia is one of the world’s top fertiliser exporters and is a crucial source of gas and energy for countries worldwide. But Putin’s invasion has thrown all of this into disarray.
Soaring food and energy prices are not solely the result of the Russia-Ukraine war, but the conflict is adding an unsustainable burden to an already precarious situation. The developing world is facing a perfect storm as the fallout of the conflict coincides with last year’s poor harvests, climate events and already high energy prices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, in March the world food-price index reached its highest level since records began in 1990.
The world cannot afford to ignore Russia’s needless blockade of Ukraine’s food exports. Urgent efforts are needed – with the close involvement of multilateral organisations such as the African Union, which represents those most affected – to convince Russia to lift its blockade of Ukrainian ports, where a crucial 20 million tonnes of wheat are estimated to be held up.
But lifting the blockade alone won’t be enough to undo the damage that’s already been done to global food security. This is a crisis that will play out over years, not months, and so we identify three key areas that threaten to drag the world into a protracted period of disruption – without immediate action:
Disruption to Ukraine’s future planting seasons: Damage to equipment, soil and storage facilities will limit Ukrainian production capabilities for years to come, even after the conflict ends.
Disruption to global fertiliser supplies: Soaring prices are compromising countries’ abilities to provide for themselves in the coming year, at just the point they need self-sufficiency the most.
Disruption to political stability worldwide: Food shortages threaten to trigger new conflicts and civil unrest across the globe, subjecting millions more to political turmoil.
None of this means that Ukraine should be pressured into seeking an end to the war before the time is right: a negotiated end to the conflict must be completed on Ukraine’s terms and timeline. In the meantime, however, the international community needs to wake up to the scale of the fallout beyond Ukraine’s borders, not only by doing what it can to address the immediate crisis, but also by recognising that without clear-sighted action, hundreds of millions of people are facing years of insecurity.
This will mean coordinated international action to lift the Russian Navy’s Black Sea blockade and ensure food products currently sitting in Ukrainian ports can be exported to increasingly unstable markets. But it also calls for longer-term action that embraces new tech and regulatory structures to help countries diversify their import sources and boost yields of crops produced at home in the long term. This is the only way to ensure the world is put on the front foot for this crisis and the next.
Plummeting Food Exports From Ukraine and Russia
The ongoing conflict has critically reduced food exports from Russia and Ukraine, resulting in food shortages globally. The Russian Navy controls both the Azov and Black Seas, effectively neutralising exports from Ukraine’s port cities of Mariupol and Odesa. Before the war, more than 90 per cent of Ukrainian oilseed and grain exports were transported by ship through the Black Sea but this route has now been completely blocked off. Ukraine’s agriculture minister Mykola Solskyi stated that before the war, the country had the capacity to export 5 million tonnes of agricultural products through Black Sea ports per month, yet currently there is only capacity for 0.5 million tonnes. This has resulted in over 4 million tonnes of grain being held in Odesa alone, waiting to be transported to markets across the world. To circumvent the blockade, the EU has attempted to implement a plan to transport produce by rail or road. However, not only are trains vulnerable to Russian artillery strikes, they also carry a fraction of the equivalent exports that could be transported by ship. Furthermore, different railway systems mean that cargo needs to be unloaded and reloaded onto new trains or wagons at borders.
Ending the blockade as soon as possible therefore requires urgent attention and must be treated as a critical priority by the international community. Negotiations to find a swift solution to the blockade should include countries and multilateral organisations, including the African Union, whose regions are facing the highest threat of acute food insecurity as a direct result of the war. They would be best placed to stress the urgency of the situation and its profound impact and perhaps enable a solution to be found.
One solution that has been suggested is naval escorts for cargo ships travelling through the Black Sea, but this would require Turkey’s authorisation (the 1936 Montreux Convention allows Turkey to ban ships from travelling through the Turkish Straits when it feels threatened by the danger of war).
Another significant barrier that needs to be overcome is the issue of mines around Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which currently prevents any naval activity in these port cities. Ukraine has said it will de-mine its ports, provided Russia guarantees it will not carry out attacks on Ukraine’s coastal cities. What is clear is that significant hurdles must be overcome, and quickly, to prevent an already difficult situation from deteriorating further.
The decrease in wheat exports has been particularly devastating for import-dependent countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all of which rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant proportion of their wheat, grain and oil imports. In 2019, 77 per cent of India’s sunflower oil came from Ukraine, which also accounts for 80 per cent of Lebanon’s wheat imports, while Russia provides Turkey with more than 60 per cent of its wheat imports. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, relies on Ukraine and Russia for 80 per cent of this supply. Such prolonged disruption to the global trade flow will exacerbate ongoing food crises and price volatility. Evidence of this can already be seen with Egypt and Sri Lanka turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for support, the former having done so in April and the latter currently engaged in talks.
Collectively, Russia and Ukraine account for 30 per cent of wheat exports globally and supply millions of tonnes to import-dependent countries. Nigeria, for instance, the world’s fourth largest wheat importer, receives about half of its wheat requirements from Russia and other Black Sea countries. Similarly, Cameroon, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda source more than 40 per cent of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine.
This leaves developing countries uniquely exposed to the fallout of the conflict. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that a prolonged conflict would be felt most acutely in eastern, western and southern Africa, threatening to increase the numbers of people experiencing acute food insecurity by up to 47 million people, amounting to approximately 323 million people from the existing 276 million. The impact has already been felt acutely: as early as March this year, the Cameroonian government blamed the Russian invasion of Ukraine for a 40 per cent increase in the price of bread. This meant that almost half of the country’s citizens no longer had access to a regular supply of this staple.
Through closer examination of supply-side pressures, it is apparent that export restrictions are having an effect on both prices and the total percentage of calories in countries cut off from their usual markets. For example, in Africa, some nations have more than a quarter of their imported calories under some type of restriction. Egypt, already the world’s largest importer of wheat, is experiencing the worst impact across the continent, with 54 per cent of its imports affected. In sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda and Kenya are seeing 43 per cent and 31 per cent of their imports respectively impacted by these restrictions.
Figure 1 – African countries hit hard by import restrictions on food include Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Uganda, with more than 40 per cent of their calories impacted
The Knock-On Effect on Other Food Prices
The impact of the conflict has not been limited to Russian and Ukrainian exports alone. There has been increased demand for and an ensuing rise in the cost of other food sources because of reduced exports from Russia and Ukraine. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has found that four major food commodities – wheat, maize, rice and soybeans – have all shown excessive levels of price volatility. Meanwhile, the FAO Food Price Index (a measure of the monthly change in the international prices of a food-commodities basket) leapt 12.6 per cent between March and February 2022 – the largest rise since the index was created in 1990. In May 2022, the index was almost 30 per cent higher than last year.
This issue is already at the forefront of the public’s mind, with UK media mentions of inflation soaring by 135 per cent since last year, according to analysis conducted for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change by SparkBeyond. But while inflation equates to bad news everywhere, it can be truly devastating for communities in low-income countries where food costs account for a much higher proportion of consumer spending. While food costs account for 17 per cent of consumer spending in advanced economies, this is much higher in low-income countries; for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, it accounts for 40 per cent. Additionally, in many places, the cost of imported food is driving local food inflation, with staples increasingly out of reach to those on low incomes.
Figure 2 – The examples of Ghana and Sri Lanka show how developing countries in Africa and Asia are being disproportionately affected by rising food prices
Figure 2 shows that while consumers in the UK and the EU have been significantly affected by increasing prices, it is developing countries in Asia and Africa that are experiencing disproportionate impacts. Sri Lanka, whose fragile economy had already been hit by the pandemic’s impact on its tourism industry, has more recently faced acute fuel shortages, resulting in huge increases in food costs and millions of people left vulnerable.
Faced with these soaring food prices, other countries are stepping up their food production to try and compensate. Farmers in the Pampas region of Argentina, known for its fertile soils, have begun planting sunflower seeds while Brazil is expected to increase corn exports. Ukraine is a huge global producer of both sunflower oil and corn so their increasing production by Brazil and Argentina should help to partially fill the gap created by the war and drive down prices at the same time. However, there are concerns that uncertainties, such as where the produce will be shipped to and for how long the war will last, could discourage farmers in those countries from planting and producing extra crops.
It must be made clear globally that this is not a short-term crisis. The World Bank has already warned that higher food prices could cause lasting damage to low- and middle-income countries, potentially pushing millions into poverty. While the short-term impacts of the war on global food markets are unavoidable, the international community needs to act fast to mitigate future impacts as much as possible.
Deadly Combination: Soaring Energy Prices Exacerbate Cost-of-Living Crises
Food prices at record highs are not the only knock-on effect of Putin’s invasion. UK consumers are already all too aware of the risks of soaring energy costs, with the average UK household set to experience a £2,553 drop in income this year, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research – half of which is a direct result of the war.
Yet again, soaring prices – driven up in part by European countries scrambling to find non-Russian sources of gas and oil – are felt most acutely in places already facing precariousness and instability. As advanced economies, such as the UK, replace Russian energy with other sources, many low- and middle-income countries are left facing increased competition for the oil and gas they were previously importing from elsewhere, forcing energy prices up.
This means that while the situation is bad in some EU countries, it is even worse for many in developing countries. Between the end of this February and the beginning of this April, for example, the price of petrol increased by 63 per cent in Sudan and 42 per cent in Sierra Leone, compared to 9 per cent in the UK.
But it’s not just a question of consumers being able to afford to refuel their cars. Increasing energy prices also have a direct impact on the already high cost of food, leaving many countries facing a perfect storm as the expense of both securing and transporting food soars. This deadly combination is not just impacting individual consumers; it’s also putting severe restraints on humanitarian efforts to support the most vulnerable.
As the day-to-day expenditure of humanitarian organisations is driven up, it is becoming increasingly hard to provide support for the 274 million people the UN estimates will require humanitarian aid this year. The WFP, for example, buys half the wheat it distributes worldwide from Ukraine and estimates that its food procurement and transport costs will increase by around $71 million per month, a 44 per cent rise compared to average monthly costs in 2019 before the pandemic, and enough to feed 3.8 million people for a month.
Meaningfully tackling this issue will require action on two fronts. The first is immediate, working to steady energy markets and finding a way to transport the 20 million tonnes of grain currently sitting in Ukrainian ports to the countries where it is needed most. Lifting the Russian blockade will require coordinated international action, with Russia currently making safe passage for ships carrying food products conditional on the lifting of sanctions against it. Diplomatic efforts must include a full range of actors, in particular those countries most impacted by soaring prices and not involved in the imposition of sanctions, and with the full support of the rest of the international community. Britain, for example, has reportedly considered sending a Royal Navy escort to protect grain freighters.
But lifting the blockade won’t go far enough to address the pricing crisis that was gathering steam well before Putin’s invasion. The IMF estimates the cost of shipping goods has increased over sevenfold during the past two years while other conflicts, in countries including Afghanistan, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic and climate crisis had already been driving up global food prices. To ensure a return to more reasonable prices – not to mention the long-term viability of humanitarian efforts – we can’t afford to see this specific crisis in isolation. Solutions cannot be a sticking plaster – they need to address the structural issues that left the world so vulnerable to this crisis in the first place.
As the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compounds existing strains on the global system, a long-term outlook is essential to ready ourselves for food-supply disruption that looks set to last years, not months. Without immediate action, the current crisis will only grow more severe as reserves run dry, a global fertiliser crunch constrains the ability of countries to provide for themselves and food insecurity threatens to exacerbate existing tensions worldwide. Together, this perfect storm of pressure means that while the world is currently facing a food-pricing crisis, according to WFP Executive Director David Beasley, “in 2023, it may very well be a food-availability problem.”
Disrupted Planting Seasons Harvests Next Year and the Years After That
Russia’s invasion hasn’t only prevented Ukraine from exporting this year’s harvests; it is also severely impacting its ability to prepare for 2023. Intense fighting means that many farms have been damaged, destroyed or occupied, with many farmers also called up to fight on the front lines. The conflict has come at a crucial point in Ukraine’s farming cycle: the planting and growing season runs from January to June for cereals and March to June for vegetables, meaning production not just of wheat but of other crucial crops, including barley, corn, sugar beet, sunflowers and soybeans, will all be impacted. According to former Ukrainian agriculture minister Roman Leshchenko, this year’s crop coverage could be less than half of what it was before the war.
This is unlikely to be a one-off disruption. The ecological damage done to Ukraine’s farms, not to mention the destruction of farming equipment and storage facilities, mean that “the world’s breadbasket” is set for a substantial long-term decline in its production capacity. Even if there is an end to the conflict before the next planting season, there’s little hope of an immediate return to business as usual.
And without proper preparation, any significant reduction in wheat exports will only bite harder next year as global grain reserves run dry. The UN has warned the world has ten weeks of grain stocks in storage: the result of longstanding issues with fragile supply chains, extreme weather events and fertiliser shortages. And with Russia and Ukraine normally contributing nearly a third of the world’s exports, the ability of countries to replenish their supplies or distribute them to those most in need will be severely constrained.
A Global Fertiliser Shortage Makes Self-Sufficiency Even Harder
The war isn’t only complicating Ukraine’s ability to produce food, it’s also complicating countries’ abilities to provide for themselves. It has put additional strain on an already delicate global fertiliser market, with a rebound in the industrial activity that uses the raw ingredients for key fertilisers, low global grain reserves and rising costs of natural gas needed for production causing prices to soar. Prices have risen nearly 30 per cent since the beginning of 2022, following an 80 per cent surge the year before.
This is a real problem for countries that now, more than ever, need to ensure their ability to provide for themselves. Chemical fertilisers are crucial for improving yields – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilisers are collectively credited with tripling global grain production and enabling the greatest period of population growth in history. But their production is closely linked to countries at the heart of the current conflict: according to Rabobank, in normal times, Russia exports nearly 20 per cent of the world’s nitrogen fertiliser while Russia and Belarus are jointly responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s exported potassium.
A combination of Russian export restrictions and Western sanctions means that the majority of usual exports are now off limits to other countries while producers elsewhere have hiked-up prices. This is a particular problem for African countries, many of which are still struggling to reach goals on fertiliser usage set out in the 2006 Abuja Declaration on Fertilisers for the African Green Revolution. Despite being home to significant untapped deposits of the raw materials needed to produce fertilisers, including in Mozambique, Togo, Tunisia and Nigeria, most countries remain dangerously reliant on Russian exports. In 2021 Russia supplied 23 per cent of African fertiliser imports, doubling its 2020 share.
This means that it’s not just Ukraine from where next year’s harvest – and more to come – will be impacted by the Russian invasion. The soaring price of fertilisers limits the ability of countries to boost their own agricultural productivity just when it is the most critical that they make up for a drop in global grain exports. This means that even the most self-sufficient countries will struggle to avoid the fallout of this conflict.
Food and Energy Security Threatens to Escalate Other Conflicts
The other risk is that the Ukraine conflict inadvertently sparks new conflicts worldwide as commodity price shocks threaten to subvert the political stability of those countries most dependent on Russian and Ukrainian exports. Particularly prone to this are those in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, many of which rely heavily on food imports to sustain their populations. At present, approximately 85 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s wheat is imported and a third of that comes from Russia and Ukraine. According to a report by the Global Network Against Food Crises, sub-Saharan Africa made up almost two-thirds of the 193 million people considered “acutely food insecure” in 2021. As the war drags on, such food shortages will only become more pronounced.
The same is true of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as soaring food and energy prices have already led to protests in Morocco and Iraq. Lebanon’s fragile peace is also at risk. The country had large-scale protests in 2019 as people responded to increasing socioeconomic hardships by taking to the streets and demanding political change. The situation has only worsened as the 2020 explosion of the port of Beirut destroyed around 85 per cent of the country’s grain reserves. Lebanon is now at further risk as the country is able only to meet 20 per cent of its domestic demand for agricultural goods, relying on 630,000 tonnes of wheat imports in 2020, for example, 80 per cent of which came from Ukraine. Nearly three-quarters of the population are now estimated to live in poverty and inflation reached 201 per cent in November 2021, threatening the country’s fragile peace and making conflict a real possibility.
Competition to secure available food supplies is already severe in deprived regions and additional shortages will place further pressure on governments to prevent and address civil unrest. But as supply shortages persist, teamed with soaring global inflation and fiscal uncertainty, this will prove a difficult task.
As was seen during the last European migrant crisis of 2015, severe disruption in one country can have major implications for other parts of the world. Today, the confluence of factors from pandemic recovery to climate change, food shortages to rapid price shocks, will inevitably destabilise the countries that rely on the resources exported from Ukraine and Russia the most. Last week, US and global development banks announced a $30 billion aid plan, partly aimed at preventing a repeat of the riots that caused mass civil unrest and even toppled governments during the last food-price crises in 2008 and 2012. The potential for food and energy insecurity to spiral into political insecurity needs to be front and centre in efforts to address this crisis, both to prevent undue disruption to the economic and production capacities of countries around the world and to prevent harsh crackdowns on civil-protest movements as seen in 2008 and 2012.
What to Do – and What Not to – in Preparing for a Long-Term Crisis
Understandably, the scale of the crisis has resulted in many countries making knee-jerk responses to protect their own people. At least 23 countries have introduced protectionist measures since the start of the war, covering more than 17 per cent of globally traded calories – up from just 5 per cent pre-invasion. But rising protectionism is only exacerbating disarray in global food markets. Countries such as Indonesia, India and Iran have banned the exports of wheat, palm oil and potatoes, which has created additional distortion. The case of India serves to demonstrate how the climate crisis is exacerbating food insecurity, with intense heat waves seriously affecting the country’s “wheat belt”.
Yet, as the IFPRI’s Senior Research Fellow David Laborde has said, restricting exports is not the right approach. It means that “you end up undermining the world trade system”, as the reduced access to international markets decreases the incentives for farmers to grow crops, which has the unwanted consequence of damaging farming systems and ultimately reducing supplies.
Not only does protectionism impact a country’s own food supply, it also decreases supply to those who need it most around the world. Beata Javorcik, the chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has warned that continuing protectionism will artificially boost prices, which will ultimately increase global poverty rates and may induce authoritarian regimes to be more oppressive in response to civil unrest.
There’s no easy solution to this, but it does mean that countries need to be thinking in terms of years, not months, when it comes to food security. African countries, many of which are reliant on Russia and Ukraine for the vast majority of their wheat imports, need to be supported in diversifying their import sources. And as this year’s planting season looks set to be disrupted by a global shortage of nitrogen fertiliser, countries should also be looking to tap into their own resources to produce supplies of their own, and to develop new tech and regulatory structures, particularly in gene-editing, that can provide alternative ways to boost yields of domestically produced crops in the tumultuous years to come. In other words, the international community needs to come together in order to avoid knee-jerk, short-term reactions to soaring food prices – or risk setting the world up for years of disruption.
The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are not limited to Ukraine and Europe. Many developing countries rely on Ukraine and Russia for vital food imports, without which they face severe shortages. Additionally, Russia’s role as a global oil and gas exporter has resulted in significant increases in energy prices, affecting households around the world, not limited to those living in countries that import Russian energy. Tens of millions of people around the world could be plunged into severe poverty as a direct result of this war.
While European and NATO countries must continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself, the international community must also work together to address the global fallouts of the conflict. This involves not only addressing the immediate issue of unblocking global food supplies currently stuck in Ukrainian ports, but also implementing measures today that will ease the long-term impacts of the crisis.
This will not be the last global food crisis the world experiences. Climate change will increasingly disrupt food production, which means there need to be mechanisms in place in the event of future stresses and shocks. The international community can act now to both mitigate the impact of the war on food markets for years to come as well as to anticipate future shocks. Without this action, the number of people at risk of food insecurity and severe poverty will only increase.
Push back against Russia’s blockade: Explore the possibility of establishing safe passage and a naval escort for cargo ships carrying the 20 million tonnes of wheat – equivalent to the annual consumption of all the world’s least-developed countries – currently trapped in Ukrainian ports.
Disincentivise knee-jerk reactions: A total of 23 countries have imposed protectionist export measures since Russia’s invasion, accounting for 17.3 per cent of total traded calories. Multilateral organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation, should be encouraging major countries to coordinate and release reserves to prevent further price increases.
Address the food-pricing crisis: Provide concerted humanitarian relief to the most vulnerable and increase funding to humanitarian organisations that have seen their transport and food-procurement costs soar.
Preempt the food-availability crisis: Encourage developing countries to diversify their import sources, adopt new gene-editing tech to boost crop yields, and support African countries to tap into existing deposits of raw materials to ramp up their fertiliser output.
Facilitate better coordination on trade: The current crisis is laying bare the importance of trade coordination, not protectionism, and should be used a springboard to implement initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, which encourage a diversification of import sources and intra-regional trade.
Lead Image: Getty Images