Could the war in Ukraine trigger a global food crisis?

The U.N. food chief says Ukraine war is causing the worst food crisis since WWII.
Derya Ozdemir
Harvester in a field of wheat at work.da-kuk/iStock

From tremors in global energy markets to a growing refugee crisis in Europe, the repercussions of Ukraine's war are strongly being felt all around the world. And one of the far-reaching effects is shaping up to be a global food crisis.

Because of the ongoing war, a crucial amount of the world's wheat, corn, and barley has been trapped in Russia and Ukraine, according to AP News. It doesn't end there either, as an even larger portion of the world's fertilizers is stuck in Russia and Belarus.

This could have profound impacts on global food supplies, dramatically affecting hunger and food security across the world. 

Increasing global food insecurity

The fact that Russia and Ukraine are at war is terrible news for the global food market as they are accounted for roughly 30 percent of global wheat exports, 17 percent of global corn exports, 32 percent of global barley exports, and 75 percent of global sunflower seed oil exports over the last five years.

Russia has effectively been cut off financially as a result of sanctions, which is why it has been mostly unable to export food. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been physically blocked off from the rest of the world as Russia has closed the Black Sea to exports, and Ukraine doesn't have enough train cars to move food across the nation.

This could lead to an increase in world hunger, especially among those who are living on the brink of food insecurity. To put things in context, Ukraine has been one of the world's top providers of the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN body that delivers food relief to countries in need. In fact, David Beasley, the World Food Programme's Director, estimates that it provides 40 percent of its wheat, which has now been completely reversed as the WFP works to supply Ukrainians with the supplies they require during the ongoing conflict, AP News reported.

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The United Nations estimated earlier this month that the war's impact on the global food market might result in an additional 7.6 million to 13.1 million people going hungry, and the World Food Program’s costs have already risen by $71 million per month, which is enough to reduce daily rations for 3.8 million people.

What's to come

While almost every country will possibly see higher food prices, certain areas may struggle to find adequate food at all. People in several African countries who rely on supplies from Ukraine and Russia are particularly vulnerable.

Furthermore, nations like Armenia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, which rely on Russia and Ukraine for nearly all of their wheat, will need to find other suppliers. They are also up against much bigger buyers like Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, which have gotten more than 60 percent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

It gets much more complicated when China enters the picture as the world’s largest producer and consumer of wheat. The New York Times reported that the country is anticipated to buy far more than usual on world markets this year due to the upcoming harvest looking unfavorable as a result of severe flooding last year.

This goes to show that, even before the war and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and rising population levels had already added to the issues facing the global food supply system

"If we end the conflict, address the needs, we can avoid famine, destabilization of nations, and mass migration," David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told the U.N. Security Council. "But if we don’t, the world will pay a mighty price and the last thing we want to do as the World Food Program is taking food from hungry children to give to starving children." 

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