Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening to push millions further into food insecurity and starvation, as global hunger and humanitarian needs are at all-time highs. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat, barley, sunflower oil, and other staple commodities that countries in the Middle East and Asia rely on heavily. Together, they’re called the “breadbasket of the world,” and as Ukraine’s productive capacity grinds to a halt — and Russia finds itself increasingly isolated from the world community — the consequences could be devastating for poor people around the world.
Beyond the immediate short-term risks due to the conflict itself, the war could usher in longer-term structural changes that could also exacerbate food insecurity. Conservatives and oil lobbyists in the United States have responded to Russia’s invasion by calling for an increase in U.S. domestic oil and gas production, which would pump additional carbon into the atmosphere, even as climate scientists say the world is running out of time to address global warming. Extreme and unpredictable weather has already contributed to increased droughts, flooding and fires, all of which can lower crop yields or destroy existing reserves. “Droughts have cut into recent harvests for wheat in North America and for soybean and corn in South America,” NPR reports. “Typhoons in Malaysia last year shrunk the crop of palm oil used for cooking, among other purposes.”
The war could also lead to an increase in countries hoarding the food they produce domestically, in response to fears of shortages — either real or theoretical. In the case of Ukraine, the government is understandably banning “exports of rye, barley, buckwheat, millet, sugar, salt, and meat until the end of this year,” Reuters reported on March 9, well into the second week of Russia’s invasion. Other countries could follow suit, resulting in a protectionist trade slowdown, which would hit poor countries that rely on imports especially hard, such as Yemen, Libya and Bangladesh.
More generally, Russia’s invasion comes in the midst of global supply chain bottlenecks due to COVID-19. Those issues are unlikely to be fully resolved as the pandemic enters its third year. Ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Ethiopia have also led to famine in those countries. Meanwhile the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and the resulting austerity that has been imposed by the United States, has left millions on the edge of starvation.
As Ukrainians flee the continued Russian onslaught in numbers not seen since WWII, many will likely require at least short-term humanitarian aid. Ukrainians displaced internally could face prolonged Russian sieges, which could also lead to starvation. All of these factors, taken together, suggest that food insecurity, which is already a major humanitarian concern around the world, will only become more acute in coming years.
Global commodity markets are reflecting this crisis, as the cost of “wheat is up about 50 percent in two weeks and corn just touched a decade high” according to Bloomberg. Even before Russia’s invasion, world food costs had increased 20.7 percent over the previous year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Together, Russia and Ukraine account for almost one-third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, with much of the supply going to countries already facing food shortages. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, bought nearly $10 billion in wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine combined from 2016-2020. Lebanon is also facing wheat shortages after a 2020 explosion in Beirut destroyed the country’s primary grain silos and reserves.
The shortages aren’t limited just to the cost of bread, either. “Russia is also a key supplier for fertilizers,” Bloomberg reports. “Virtually every major crop in the world depends on inputs like potash and nitrogen, and without a steady stream, farmers will have a harder time growing everything from coffee to rice and soybeans.” Ukraine and Russia are both large exporters of sunflower oil, used in cooking. Barley is a key staple for animal feed, so the cost of meat could also continue to rise due to the conflict.
According to the most recent report from the United Nations, between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020, with nearly one in three people lacking adequate access to food. The report listed five major drivers of food insecurity: conflict, extreme weather, economic slowdowns, poverty and high food costs. Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to exacerbate each of those in unpredictable ways, but whatever the results are, they will not be limited only to those two countries.
Africa has been particularly hard hit by climate change and food shortages. In West Africa, as many as 38 million people are expected to face food insecurity this summer due in part to droughts. But the danger encompasses much of the continent. “Southern Africa is being hurt more than other regions by climate change — and … women and girls are bearing the brunt,” the UN’s World Food Program said in a statement released on International Women’s Day. Southern Africa’s “temperatures are rising at twice the global average, triggering more frequent and severe storms, and longer droughts, deepening already widespread hunger.”
These issues should be understood primarily on their own terms, as humanitarian issues that require cooperation and solidarity. The problem is not capacity. As Deepmala Mahla, vice president for humanitarian affairs at CARE, recently told Bloomberg, “people are sleeping hungry when the world has the ability and is producing more than the food required to feed everyone.” Instead, global conflicts and poverty have created a food distribution problem, one that will only be made worse by rising global temperatures.
For as much as hunger is a humanitarian issue, it would be naive not to consider the secondary consequences it poses. There is some debate about the role that food shortages due to climate change played in the runup to the Syrian civil war, but there is little doubt that in general, food and water scarcity can be significant drivers of conflict within a country or between states. That’s also the U.S. intelligence community’s interpretation, which found that, “the economic fallout from COVID-19, combined with conflict and weather extremes, has driven hunger worldwide to its highest point in more than a decade, which increases the risk of instability,” according to the latest annual threat assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. While there’s plenty in the report to disagree with, there’s value in understanding the perspective of the U.S. intelligence services, if only to counter some of their conclusions more effectively.
The world’s attention is rightly focused right now on Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion, and the cascading catastrophes that Ukrainians face inside and outside their own borders. In the two weeks since the war began, it’s become almost a cliché to say that this conflict signals the end of one world order and the beginning of another. The extent to which that’s true remains to be seen, but the world is already seeing how the war is worsening existing crises. Those effects will be felt far after this conflict ends, and have already extended far beyond the breadbasket of the world.