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War and Want: Conflict in Ukraine threatens a food catastrophe far beyond its borders

The vicious conflict in Ukraine could lead to even more deaths from hunger far beyond the country’s borders as grain exports from the region grind to a halt and global food prices soar

Photo: The New European

From Khartoum to Beirut and from Kabul to Sana’a and beyond, the sounds of war in Ukraine find an echo in the angry shouts of people protesting rising food prices and in the cries of hungry children, whose aid rations have been cut because the grain that used to feed them is becoming too scarce and too expensive. 

The human and economic costs of Russia’s invasion are already unconscionably high but they could spiral even higher as vital exports from the “world’s breadbasket”  grind to a halt, threatening millions of lives, livelihoods and possibly even political stability in fragile countries from Yemen to Ethiopia, from Iraq to Sudan and from Egypt to Lebanon. 

Developing countries have already been slammed by record inflation, rising interest rates and looming debt burdens, partly caused by the Covid pandemic. Some are gripped by their own decades-old conflicts while climate change is also deepening hardship from Latin America to the Horn of Africa, where the driest conditions since 1981 have brought 13 million people to the brink of famine in parts of northern Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

“While war reigns over Ukraine, a sword of Damocles hangs over the global economy, especially in the developing world,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said this week.

“Food, fuel and fertilizer prices are skyrocketing.  Supply chains are being disrupted.  And the costs and delays of transportation of imported goods – when available – are at record levels… All of this is hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”

Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter, accounting for around 10% of the global market, while Russia is the world’s largest exporter with around 17% of the market. The two countries are also lead suppliers of rapeseed and account for more than half of the world’s sunflower oil exports. 

As the war grinds on, prices of all these staples are rocketing higher with the Ukrainian government also banning or limiting exports of some grains and cereals. Many experts are now warning of a “catastrophic” global food crisis this year.

David Beasley, head of the UN’s World Food Programme, put it bluntly this week as he travelled to Ukraine, which usually provides half the food his agency uses in its relief work.

“The entire world is going to pay a price because food prices are now spiking, fuel prices, shipping costs… It’s already going to cost (the WFP) over $70 million of additional costs per month because of what we’re facing: the perfect storm. Conflict, Covid and climate change. That’s the state of affairs of the world today,” he said in a video on Twitter. 

The problem is monumental in scale. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says 50 countries around the world depend on Russia and Ukraine for 30% or more of their wheat supply while many European and Central Asian countries rely on Russia for over 50% of their fertilizer supply. Even before the war, food prices were already marching higher – they hit a new global high in February – partly because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. The FAO has said food prices could rise by another 20% as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

High energy prices – exacerbated by sanctions on major oil and gas producer Russia – are making things worse by pushing costs for farmers higher. And the global supply of cereals and other foodstuffs has also been hit by climate change, with extreme weather affecting yields across the globe; Canada, one of the world’s biggest grain producers, suffered record heatwaves last year, US farmers were hit by wildfires, floods are ravaging parts of Australia and droughts have affected harvests in Latin America.

The resulting higher prices will hit the poorest hardest, including those who depend on humanitarian aid to survive. This week, WFP and other UN agencies warned that Yemen was “teetering on the edge of outright catastrophe” with 17.4 million people needing food assistance in a country riven by a seven-year war between the Iran-backed Houthi movement and the Saudi-backed government. 

“Conflict remains the primary underlying driver of hunger in Yemen,” the agencies said in a statement. “The economic crisis – a by-product of conflict – and the depreciation of the currency have pushed food prices in 2021 to their highest levels since 2015. The Ukraine war is likely to lead to significant import shocks, further driving food prices. Yemen depends almost entirely on food imports with 30 per cent of its wheat imports coming from Ukraine.”

Around 7.3 million people in the country are facing “emergency levels of hunger” with 2.2 million children acutely malnourished. And the number of people experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger – or famine conditions – is projected to increase five-fold, from 31,000 currently to 161,000 people over the second half of 2022. 

WFP already had to reduce food rations for eight million people in Yemen at the beginning of the year due to a shortage of funding. And now, because of another war far away to the north, that funding is going to be squeezed even further. 

Beasley’s “perfect storm” is also sweeping through other countries. This week, in Sudan, security forces fired tear gas at people protesting against a 40% rise in the price of bread, as well as soaring fuel prices. The economic hardship is building on people’s frustration with military rule after a coup last year that derailed the democratic transition and led to the suspension of donor funds. Barely three years ago, in 2019, protests over higher bread prices contributed to the overthrow of then-president Omar al-Bashir.

Last week, hundreds of people took to the streets in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq over the rising cost of cooking oils and flour. And there are reports of people rushing to buy flour, semolina and other basic products across North Africa, mindful of the fact that the holy month of Ramadan will start in a few weeks.

It’s a worrying situation especially given the historical precedents: when global commodity prices – and hence the cost of basic foodstuffs –  rose sharply following the financial crisis in 2008, people rioted in cities from Dakar in Senegal to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire to Cairo in Egypt and Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

A few years later, in 2011, higher bread prices in North Africa were one of the sparks that lit the political fire that became the Arab Spring and toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. WFP’s Beasley said in a recent interview that conditions now are much worse than they were in 2011.

Tunisia – where the Arab Spring started after fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in despair at economic hardship – imports almost half the soft wheat it uses to make bread from Ukraine and prices are at a 14-year high. In Egypt, prices of bread had already risen by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021, leading the government to say it planned to raise the cost of heavily subsidised bread for the first time in decades.

“Today, decreases in the global stocks of wheat and other grains and oilseeds from Ukraine and Russia could exacerbate ongoing crises in Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, and other hotspots and aggravate instability in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria,” wrote Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Among Ukraine’s major wheat buyers, almost half already experience acute food insecurity; particularly vulnerable to a decrease in Russian wheat supply are its purchasers across Asia and Africa.” 

Other vulnerable countries include Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran, which get more than 60% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Lebanon, once nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East but now a byword for economic collapse, is also in trouble. After decades of state corruption and mismanagement, its financial system collapsed in 2019 and because it imports most of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, things could get a lot worse, and fast. 

Already brought to its knees by the financial meltdown, the pandemic and a massive explosion that destroyed wheat silos and large parts of Beirut in 2020, Lebanon cannot take much more economic pain. A hike in bread prices could be the final straw, coming as it would on top of soaring fuel prices.

Lebanon’s ministry of finance says there is only enough wheat left to last one month, although it is trying to secure alternative supplies. Already bakeries are reportedly rationing bread, while prices have increased by around 20%. The fuel crisis is also making hard lives harder.

The charity CARE says the government is only able to supply a couple of hours of electricity each day so most people rely on generators. “But as prices rise, people are forced to ration their electricity. Lebanon is in danger of being plunged into darkness. And this does not only concern individuals but also and especially hospitals, schools and other vital sectors,” director Bujar Hoxha said in a statement last week.

Lebanon is also home to more than one million refugees from the war next-door in Syria, where Russian planes also bombed buildings to pieces in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s years-long war against rebels. Charities fear the war in Ukraine will mean less international aid for these other victims of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The UN’s Guterres said there was “clear evidence of this war draining resources and attention from other trouble-spots in desperate need”.

As the war drags on, fuelling the perfect storm of want and need across the globe, it’s perhaps worth recalling the words of Jacques Diouf, the late Senegalese director-general of the FAO, in 2008. He said people will always react when faced with hunger. “They will not let themselves die without doing something.”

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