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Climate Change Was Already Causing Hunger to Spike. Then Russia Invaded Ukraine.

A climate expert with the World Food Program says hunger is rising faster than at any other time in the 21st century.

A wheat warehouse is seen in ruins from ongoing Russian attacks in Kopyliv, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on May 28, 2022.

Part of the Series

The war in Ukraine is causing shortages in the global food supply. Climate change was already creating widespread food insecurity before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the number of people facing famine or a food crisis globally is growing faster than any other time in the 21st century. Gernot Laganda, director of the Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Service at the World Food Program, explains how it’s all connected in this episode of “Climate Front Lines.”

Music by Dan Mason.


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Welcome back to “Climate Front Lines,” the podcast about the people, places and ecosystems on the front lines of the climate crisis. I’m your host, Mike Ludwig, and I’ve been reporting on the war in Ukraine since Russia’s brutal invasion in February. I am horrified by the war, as well the war in Yemen, which for years has been another destination for weapons made by private military contractors in the United States.

But it’s difficult to look away from Ukraine, especially after speaking to Ukrainians living through this war. And the conflict is sending shockwaves across the world as prices rise and vital exports of grain, wheat and other staples are blocked from leaving Ukraine’s ports, a problem Ukraine and Russia blame other for as international negotiators push to reopen shipping lanes in the Black Sea.

Last year Ukrainian grain fed 400 million people around the world, and if the war drags on unabated, the number of people experiencing acute hunger globally is expected to rise by 47 million, according to the United Nation’s World Food Program, which relies on Ukrainian grain to feed people around the world. Climate change compounds this threat to global food supply by contributing to famines, droughts, heat waves and unpredictable weather. The World Food Program is the world’s largest humanitarian aid organization, so I reached out to the group’s top climate expert in Munich, Germany to find out more.

Gernot Lagonda: So, my name is Gernot Lagonda. I’m leading the climate and disaster risk reduction programs at the United Nations World Food Program. And when we look into the issues of climate, uh, climate change, then we look at this through the prism of hunger.

And we unfortunately live in a, in a day and age where the number of people who are in food crisis or emergencies is really, you know, rising faster than any time before in the 21st century.

In 2021, 193 million people in 53 countries and territories have experienced high acute food insecurity. Those are 40 million more than in 2020. Um, and yeah, toxic mix of conflict, climate change, economic disruptions is driving these trends. People who have been okay, uh, and you could call the middle class two years ago are now in a situation where they depend on external humanitarian assistance.

And also, when you look at the really extreme end of the, of the vulnerability spectrum, when people are in feminine-like conditions, we have more than half a million people who are at risk of dying of hunger. So, when you think that famines are something of the past, because, you know, we, as a global society, we have never been as wealthy.

Um, and we have really spent unprecedented amounts after COVID and also military spending is, is really big. I mean, at the same time we see more and more dying of hunger. And that is now a perspective that is really difficult to, really difficult to address. But, you know, in the, in the World Food Program, of course we provide humanitarian assistance to over 120 million people every year. Helping many people who are trapped in these in these, um, in this perfect storm between climate conflict, economic disruptions survive.

But at the same time, we of course try to strengthen resilience so that the next shock that is going to hit is not going to hit as hard. And, basically, people have a few assets and the few strategies to rely on so that they do not become dependent on humanitarian assists, but this is more or less the space.

Mike Ludwig: Gotcha. And you said that some people who we might consider to be middle-class are now facing hunger. What, is there an example of a place like that you could give us? And also, what breaks down, you know, what changes in a food supply or an economy that causes people who might want to be stable to now be facing a food shortage?

Well, there are certain regions in the world where climate has always been a persistent driver of, of problems for people, especially for people who have rural livelihoods and are dependent on climate sensitive resources, such as agriculture. So, as the hell belt, the horn of Africa. So as a, as a humanitarian agency, we are, we’re quite alert and aware about these flashpoints.

But then when you look for example into Central America, you know, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, all of a sudden you can see a combination of factors where the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record has hit families that were already weakened by years of poor rainfall, economic recessions in the wake of COVID-19. So then basically you have stronger and more frequent climate extremes hitting more vulnerable conditions. And that then creates new hunger hotspots in the world. And there, of course you can also have internal displacement people basically losing, uh, or having no capital to fall back on, having to move.

We have, of course, then another problem in the humanitarian space, which is that there are many countries where we have conflict. South Sudan is an example, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan. And in order to provide humanitarian aid there, you also need access and you need to work on protection of civilians, but very often also there climate-related issues are erupting or setting back the humanitarian relief.

Um, you can have heat waves where all of a sudden, you know, you, you cannot go out, because it is 50 degrees [Celsius]. Right now, in Pakistan or in India the heat waves are impacting not only the crop year, they are wiping out the harvest. They are also impacting the labor force, and basically agricultural workers cannot go out. You have heat stress in, in, in people, in livestock and crops.

So, there is, apart from that, you also have a big, big drain on the, on the energy system, because all the ventilation in the air conditioning is going on. So, you have this link also of climate extremes interrupting humanitarian and development progress through to these extremes.

And what does the aid look like? Have you worked on the ground in a country that you could share a story about, or just tell us what it looks like to deliver aid? I mean, you said that the program provides age 120 million people worldwide. What does that look like? In the United States, we might think, oh, that’s sacks of flour being dropped from an airplane or something, but I imagine that there’s actually a bit more complicated process to actually helping people access food.

Yeah. So, part of our work is humanitarian relief after emergencies, you know, to people who are in a potentially life-threatening situation. Um, and this can basically take the shape of distributing food in places where markets have broken down or when markets are not accessible.

So, when you are in a, in a setting where you have civil war or conflict, and you need to provide food behind the front lines, and sometimes also through air drops. Other times, you know, some regions are cut off through, through flood events. South Sudan is for example, the country where we have been doing air drops. So, there is really food distribution through a very heavy logistical chain. But then in other places, especially the ones where market are accessible, we have shifted more and more to cash transfers. Because this is, does not only have the advantage that it stimulates the local economy and can bring a local economy back on its legs, it also gives people a choice on what they spent the cash for and which kind of foodstuffs they buy. So, a lot of what we provide, especially in places where markets are or recovering or where they are active is cash transfers.

And maybe another aspect here on the, on the type of transfers that we provide. Cash transfers are a very important element also in displacement settings, because often when people get displaced and they move, they move into, into new spaces, there is potential for social tensions or conflict with the host population, because people think, okay, um, they’re drawing on, on our local resources, and it’s, it’s a more of a conflictual situation. When you provide displaced communities with cash, then they spend it in the local economies and then you can also reduce, uh, reduce conflict.

That makes so much sense.

Yeah. I mean, this is, this is the humanitarian part of our work. That means basically, whenever you have people who do not have access to food, either economical access or physical access, we provide that. But, you know, providing food or cash after things have happened is, is actually the last resort that you, that you, that you should have available because projects and initiatives that build the resilience of people before they get hit and equip them with the knowledge, the information, the, you know, the tools, the seeds, the agricultural inputs, so that they have resilient livelihoods so that when then a seasonal, dry spell or a drought rolls around, they can buffer this autonomously. And they do not rely on an external aid, but a big part of our programs is also in this space.

So, I imagine that when these markets break down, have you seen markets break, you talking about market breakdown. Have you seen food markets breakdown? Is it usually because of climate and conflict? Like for instance, the war in Ukraine, or can markets just break down because of a heat wave that paralyzes a certain part of a country?

I guess I’m being broadly general here. I’m curious about what that looks like when all of a sudden you just can’t go to a market, for instance, and buy food.

Yeah. So, there’s different markets, right? There’s a global market and there are regional ones, national ones, and then local markets. And you can see market breakdowns, you know, very localized. If, for example, the particular district in a, in a country has been hit by a flood or a drought, or you have repetitive droughts, like in Madagascar, for example, in the south of Madagascar, uh, the, the food markets have all but broken down. The local ones. Now people are really in a very, very difficult situation because they are so vulnerable that, um, really every, they have used up all their reserves. They have no livestock left to sell. They sold all their tools, all their assets, they have no cash left. They have nothing in storage. So no, no grain in storage, all the grain is eaten. So, they are now then in, in a situation where they require external.

So that can, it can be localized breakdown on market, but of course, when you have a conflict, like in Yemen or in Syria, you have the entire economy breakdown. And then of course there are opportunities for certain regions may be in that country to still have local markets and work a little bit more with the principle of self-sufficiency rather than selling surplus to the markets, because all the access roads are, are broken down and you cannot get the diesel to drive your pumps and you cannot get your fertilizer, but you can still produce locally for your family. So that, that may well be possible in, in certain, um, in certain places, Afghanistan, for example, is, is a, is a country where you have, uh, these local markets even at a global, uh, sorry at the national, uh, level, uh, the food insecurity is very high now because it’s also rain fed agriculture, extremely drought prone, extremely prone to being hit by these, these climate extremes. And of course, in Afghanistan as we all know, it’s not only a, uh, you know, climate problem, you have the political, problem there as well. You have a social tensions, conflict, high levels of poverty. So, it’s usually when people go hungry, when markets break down, usually it’s a combination of things, but again, it’s context specific depends on the depends on the country we’re talking about.

Your description of Afghanistan really kind of struck me mostly because after the United States made its final military withdrawal. I talked to so many people, many of them more middle-class or had been in some way employed closer to the U.S. government or NATO or to the former government of Afghanistan. And they were so desperate to get out, uh, whether or not they had a connection to the United States. They were very desperate to leave as soon as the U.S. left because with it, the U.S. took a lot of wealth that it had been injecting into the economy.

What has been your experience with Afghanistan, especially with the heat waves and with the U.S. leaving. How dire is the situation there right now?

Not only because of the political situation and the human rights situation, but also because of water stress in mostly rain fed agriculture. When you look at how Afghanistan’s average temperature has increased, I mean, globally, we have increased by about 1.1 degree centigrade since pre-industrial times, you know, global average surface temperature in Afghanistan, this is more than that. You know, we are talking about 0.8 degrees centigrade, so it’s, it’s really higher than the global average, and rainfall events have become more extreme and unpredictable. Um, there is really this pattern where you see the rainfall that may have fallen over several weeks to months is now coming down in one or two afternoons, washing away everything, your way that has been planted.

And as a result, you know, you have, you have high degrees of erosion. And also, you know, when you have drought conditions like you did last year, um, and we had 25 out of 34 provinces facing drought conditions. So around half of Afghanistan’s population right now are in a food crisis or emergency. And this is largely also a climate narrative, not only a conflict one.

Um, and yeah, we, when we look at these situations, I think we always look at these different drivers of risk for people, you know, climate extremes being one, but then of course there is conflict drivers, and then there is economic drivers and economic drivers have been especially prominent after COVID-19, when you had basically market blockages and inflation, but also now in the wake of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, where now food prices are going up all over the globe.

And this is then something that these poor communities in, in places like Afghanistan or in the horn of Africa or in Sub-Saharan Africa or that are down in southern Africa, even they feel, you know, as much as 9,000 kilometers away, you see food price inflation of around 20 percent for important staple crops. You see fertilizer prices increase in business then basically that it comes all together into that toxic mix of risk that people experience.

Right. I know. I imagine that when there is this toxic mix, or there is a shock to global food markets or to the economic system, it is probably the most vulnerable people in countries like Afghanistan or like Yemen who are hit first and hardest by a food shortage. I would imagine it kind of works like that where, you know, things might be okay, but in a vulnerable place, one shock, one pandemic, one war, a thousand miles away will hit the most vulnerable first. Is that what you have seen?

Yes, that’s correct. I mean the front lines of the climate crisis are really not the places that are well off, you know, those are places that have started to unravel at this intersection, climate, conflict, skyrocketing inflation. And, um, when you look a little bit into the projections, oh, in, in, in where these hotspots are, and you see that in places like that are already very fragile in, in South Sudan and Afghanistan, Somalia, those are the hotspots where really people are more and more dependent on humanitarian aid.

This is where basically our operations have to have to support more and more people. And in a, in a warming climate, you know, this number is only going to increase. I mean, we, we did some modeling a while back that if global temperatures keep rising to 2 degrees centigrade, and this is keep in mind, we’re already at 1.1 above pre-industrial average, we would have at least an additional 189 million people in food crisis or, or worse.

So in such a future, you know, the World Bank has modeled that also 216 million people could become displaced within their own countries by climate shocks and stresses alone. Around seven times more than, than today. And if you turn on the heat to four degrees and the number of hungry people could increase by as many as 1.8 billion people. So, neither governments nor the international aid system are ready to handle such a future. Um, and you know, so, so for us, there’s of course this very important advocacy element here to make sure that, um, these climate, uh, negotiations deliver on ambition.

I mean, we cannot go to a future that is warmer than 2 degrees because we will all be at breaking point in the international aid architecture. And, you know, you will see mass displacement, you will see mass starvation. You immediately will see destabilization at a scale that we have never experienced yet.

So, we’re really bracing for impact. I think we, we still have time to, uh, frame some smart, intelligent, strong, and scalable programs ride now in the next decade, but then we, we really calculate that in the early thirties, we will have blown past at 1.5 degree warming target that is enshrined in the international climate negotiations. So, um, I’m is running out very, very fast.

Time is absolutely running out. I want to zero in really quickly on Yemen and Ukraine, because those are two conflicts that we’re talking a lot about in the United States, because our government has been involved in those conflicts. In Yemen, there has been a ceasefire. Um, I’m not sure if it’s still holding. But it has been hailed as a moment where humanitarian aid has been able to access the country a little bit easier than during times of fighting. Do you have any updates on Yemen or the humanitarian aid work that is going on in of area?

I would probably relay you to our country office in Yemen. Again, you know, I’m the focal point for climate and disasters, production protection of civilians in, uh, basically conflict affected countries when it comes to our logistical supply chain. Um, then I think other people are better placed to answer that question.

No, no, no, of course. And real quickly, as far as climate and supply chains, can you, uh, explain or help us understand how, you know, the blockade or Russia stealing wheat or grain from Ukraine, how that that ripples out into the markets and how that affects people? I mean, what does that actually look like?

I mean, it’s just, it just comes down to — there was food coming to a port in another country. Now it’s just not coming. And that changes everything in that local area.

Basically you know, when we look at this, the impact of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, on the global food markets, and this is nothing that has to do with climate. It’s not climate element here. It’s basically scarcity on the market. Because the two countries, Russia, and Ukraine, they are really important for global wheat production.

They are really important for sunflower oil production for a number of staple crops that are, that not only are important for food importing countries, but they’re also important for the humanitarian system because we buy these foodstuffs and then we use them for our humanitarian operations in, for example, Syria or Yemen.

So basically, when the food prices now go up and this inflation directly affects the number of people that we can feed. So we had, uh, um, the latest number I’ve seen is that we have a monthly, additional costs of around $29 million. Just to feed the same number of people, just because of the inflation.

Effect on the food prices and the inflation effect on the energy prices, which are also very important in the entire picture. Because in order to distribute food, you do not only need to, to buy the food. You also need to transport it. Um, and basically every so sort, that’s the first factor here that I think is important is the prices increase because there is not as much product on the market.

And then of course you have the blockages of the, of the supply lines now. So, you cannot, if you cannot ship your, your grain out, why, uh, the port of Odessa basically, then, then you have to all around to reach him, which costs so much more. Also, when we, when, when energy prices are high, when basically you, you pay much more for, uh, to fill a truck, uh, the tank will have a truck that is producing food, uh, transporting food, but this is in the, in the end, you know, the two factors that, that I think are really important for, for all the supply chains.

I mean, it’s the overall prices of the, of the food commodities that we need, we need in our programs. And then the, uh, the logistics, uh, are becoming more complicated because certain routes that we usually use and that have been very, very efficient and now not accessible. And we need to find other means and ways to get our, our trucks, uh, to the places where people are.

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