Monday, March 21, 2022

How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect global food security?

It has been almost a month since the devastating invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The world must begin to grapple with the emerging crisis that will outlast the war fought on the streets of Ukraine—hunger.

Long-lasting food shortages, malnutrition and acute hunger sparked by war are too often the underreported and overlooked consequences of conflict. But we see correlation without fail: Every time violent conflict disrupts a region, more people are pushed into hunger. At the height of the Iraq War, a U.N. agency reported that over 800,000 people were going to bed hungry every night and more than half of the population were at-risk of food shortages. Right now, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) warned that there are close to 18 million people facing acute food insecurity and famine in Ethiopia, a crisis that has been primarily triggered by regional conflict. In this case, the stakes are even higher, potentially pushing millions into hunger far beyond the borders of Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of wheat, corn and oilseeds—staple food goods which are now at risk. Globally, these two countries export 26 percent of global wheat and 67 percent of sunflower seed, cottonseed and safflower oil, according to the International Trade Centre. These are vitamin-rich crops critical to daily nutrition that are used in everything from bread, cooking oil and livestock feed. Both countries are essential food suppliers for low- and middle-income countries in which tens of millions of people are already food insecure. Importing countries in the region are already seeing price surges—a trend that's expected to continue rippling out into neighboring regions.

What are the implications of this price surge? When the price of staple commodities like wheat, corn and cooking oil rise, those living in poverty feel the effects more. In the U.S., costs such as processing, packaging and marketing remain relatively stable, and consumers could possibly see a few cents added on to supermarket prices. But regions more closely tied into Ukraine and Russia's agricultural economy will see marked differences in costs.

People receive free bread from a bread factory on Feb. 28, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine.ANASTASIA VLASOVA/GETTY IMAGES

We've seen the devastation wrought by price changes in this region before. In 2008, during the economic crisis, the price of wheat and corn doubled, and the price of rice nearly tripled, resulting in millions unable to afford food. In Burkina Faso in West Africa, where already 20 percent of the population lived with hunger and more than 76 percent of income was spent on household food, millions of families were forced into hunger—many dropping from two meals per day to one. These economies are still closely tied today. In 2020, African countries imported nearly $7 billion worth of agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia. A significant enough prolonged price rise will reproduce the 2008 food crisis.

Even before the Russian invasion, food prices were already climbing to their highest level since 2011. Now, inflation, supply chain disruptions and growing inequity worldwide, coupled with the conflict, has created the perfect storm for a global food security crisis, impacting those living in poverty the most.

Today, 811 million people are living with chronic hunger and 2.37 billion are living without access to adequate nutrition—a hunger pandemic worsened by COVID-19, according to the United Nations. Knowing that conflict has been a main driver of hunger and malnutrition for decades, the invasion of Ukraine puts millions more at risk. The world simply cannot afford to let another conflict drive the number of hungry people even higher.

Unfortunately, the dominos that were felled by the invasion will continue to fall for months and possibly years to come, extending far beyond the borders of Ukraine. As we look at our responsibility to respond, all of us must call on the global community to assist with the long-term fallout of this—and all—conflict. The solution will look different from region to region and country to country, but the private and public sectors will need to immediately launch cooperative efforts to invest in long-term food security initiatives. We will need a truly global effort to ensure those living in hunger aren't the forgotten victims of war.

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