Bombing the world’s breadbasket

Wheat fields in midsummer (August) in Ukraine, Oblast Lviv © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

For the past month, the world has watched in horror as civilians suffer and die in Ukraine. They are being shelled in their homes, sheltering in freezing basements, and fleeing under fire. Yet even as we try to support Ukrainians and end the war, we cannot forget the vulnerable elsewhere. The Russian invasion is causing pain far beyond Ukraine’s borders. A global hunger catastrophe is looming.

Within Ukraine, millions are suddenly facing hunger as food supply chains collapse and cities are left without supplies or aid. Seeking to replace those commercial supply chains, the World Food Programme (WFP) has pre-positioned bulk food rations outside cities under fire. It has so far delivered 12,000 tonnes of food, all sourced from within Ukraine.

Exports of food from Ukraine have ground to a halt, and the impacts are already being felt around the world. Long known as Europe’s breadbasket, Ukraine produces a considerable amount of the world’s food — including more than half of the WFP’s wheat supply. This area of the Black Sea basin exported 12% of all calories traded globally. Let that sink in. It is now a war zone.

In these far from normal times, nothing is getting out. Ukrainian ports are closed, and Russian grain and fertilizer deals are on pause because of sanctions. WFP estimates 13.5 million tons of wheat, and 16 million tons of maize are frozen in the two countries. Already, vulnerable people are feeling the burn.

The first to be hit are those that rely directly on the region for their food. Forty-five African and least developed countries import at least a third of their wheat directly from Ukraine or Russia. Of those, 18 countries import at least 50 percent from the region, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, the DRC, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

But it doesn’t stop there. The war has sparked turmoil on global grain markets, sending prices soaring. This comes as extreme weather events, conflict, the pandemic and inflation were already driving global food prices to what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says is an all-time high. The implications of wheat price hikes alone are shattering.

Tens of millions of hungry people rely on the WFP’s wheat stores, from Ethiopia to Afghanistan, Syria to Yemen. Rising food prices have already forced the agency to cut rations after the average cost of WFP operations rose 36% since 2019. Related turmoil on energy markets has prompted fears things are set to get even worse.

The scale of global hunger is already eye-watering. After decades of success in reducing food insecurity, recent years have seen a reversal of those trends.

The WFP says 811 million now go to bed hungry every night, while the number of people facing acute food insecurity more than doubled — from 135 million to 276 million — since 2019. A total of 44 million people in 38 countries are on the edge of famine.

The crisis will hit people already suffering in unimaginable ways. In Yemen, where a horrific civil war has brought death and disease on a devastating scale, people will have even less to eat. For those in Lebanon, whose past years have been blighted by grinding financial and political crises, the Beirut port catastrophe, and the pandemic, price rises will spell further misery for untold millions.

The war in Ukraine will tip many more people around the world over the edge into hunger. That’s why UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the invasion of Ukraine “an assault on the world’s most vulnerable people and countries.” A month into this war, its full impact has not yet been felt, and it is only set to get worse. We need to respond, now.

Even without Ukrainian and Russian exports, the problem seems to lie with distribution rather than supply. There is enough food for everyone in our world. But distribution and logistics issues become an even greater challenge when global supply chains are already overstretched and many air and land routes blocked. Meanwhile, rising prices mean the World Food Programme has to stretch its food budget. If funds are not topped up, it will have far less to distribute to the hungry.

The UN is mustering its forces to find ways to head off the worst of this perfect storm. Mr. Guterres has set up a multi-agency Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance to coordinate the global response to the worldwide impacts of the war in Ukraine. The Group will provide analysis and make recommendations to avert large-scale crises in the food, energy and financing sectors.

As its first urgent policy recommendation on the food crisis, the group is calling on countries to prevent hoarding and speculative movements that would further threaten supply. It is urging all nations to keep their food markets open and to cease trade restrictions and export bans. This is the only way to avoid the same ‘global scramble’ that we saw in the race for COVID-19 vaccines. We will call for safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable, asking the World Bank to continue to make emergency use of its funds to support all impacted countries. Funding for humanitarian assistance should also be increased as necessary to ensure access to food for all people.

The cascading repercussions of this war are hitting the poorest, hungriest countries the hardest. But even as we work to mitigate its impact and support the vulnerable, let’s not lose sight of the only true solution to this crisis. Above all, we need peace in Ukraine. Not next week, not tomorrow, but now.

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Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.