As U.S. consumers cope with the highest levels of food-price inflation in 40 years, the situation throughout the developing world is even more distressing. West Africa is facing its worst food crisis in a decade, with the number of people in need of emergency food aid standing at 27 million in April and rising fast. Another 13 million face severe hunger in the Horn of Africa, and as many as 19 million will be food insecure in Yemen by the end of this year. Europe fears another mass migration crisis sparked by food shortages in Africa and the Middle East. Sri Lanka, once more prosperous than its neighbors, applied last month for 100,000 metric tons of food aid from a regional food bank as its debt crisis threatens to leave millions hungry.
This global emergency has multiple causes, from climate change to COVID-related supply-chain disruptions, but one event affecting all these far-flung countries is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of all the damage it has already done in just over 100 days, that crisis is now wreaking more and more havoc on the global food supply. The war has cut off the flow of agricultural exports from one of the world’s major breadbaskets, driving up global prices of wheat and other staple crops. It is also raising the cost of fuel and fertilizer, threatening the livelihoods of farmers around the world. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that an additional 47 million people will experience acute hunger in the coming months, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, if the war continues unabated. The compounding crisis isn’t just exposing some alarming vulnerabilities in the global food system, it’s also demonstrating how unprepared the world is to withstand the inevitable additional crises to come.
Russia and Ukraine are both among the globe’s leading producers of wheat, together supplying 28 percent of the total global supply in 2021. These countries are also massive producers of other cereals, such as barley and corn (used for animal feed), as well as sunflower seeds, a key source of vegetable oil. According to The Economist, the two countries provide almost one-eighth of all calories traded worldwide. They also account for the vast majority of some countries’ wheat imports: Over 75 percent of the wheat going to Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey comes from Russia or Ukraine. Bangladesh, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan African countries are also major consumers of their wheat. The U.S., on the other hand, imports little of its food and has no shortage of homegrown wheat, but even Americans are feeling the impact of the Ukraine war on the costs of energy, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs.
Last week, Ukraine’s prime minister accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of deliberately creating a global food crisis by blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea shipping — the transit route for 95 percent of its wheat exports — in order to give Russia more leverage in the conflict and force western countries to lift sanctions or stop sending weapons to Ukraine. Putin, for his part, has characteristically denied that anything is happening at all: “The problem of exporting grain from Ukraine does not exist,” he said in a state TV interview. Russian officials say they are open to lifting the blockade if sanctions are lifted, but this proposal is currently a nonstarter for Kyiv and its western allies, certainly as long as 20 percent of Ukrainian territory remains under Russian occupation. The U.N. is attempting to broker a deal with Moscow to ease the blockade, but U.S. officials doubt these talks will go anywhere as the Kremlin is plainly acting in bad faith.
As is the case with most famines throughout history, the problem is not a lack of food but rather a lack of access to it. Russian forces have occupied the country’s southeastern breadbasket and coastline, leveled the port city of Mariupol, and continue to threaten the main port of Odesa in the southwest. Ukraine has also laid mines in the sea to defend Odesa against a naval assault, which additionally hampers shipping. Without the ability to ship grain via the Black Sea, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister told the Financial Times that the country can move less than 20 percent of its normal grain exports via other routes — maybe 30 percent with an all-out scramble to improve other transport options. Even if Ukraine could get its grain into Poland or Romania for shipment outside Europe, these countries’ seaports wouldn’t be able to handle the volume. Additionally, Russia has seized hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat and bombed farms, grain silos, and many of the road and rail links Ukraine might otherwise use to export grain overland.
Russia can still (barely) afford a war with Ukraine, but the rest of the world can’t — especially poor countries that depend entirely on food and energy imports. Putin has figured out a way to hack the interdependence of the global markets for these essential goods: in this case, by blockading Ukraine’s ports and throttling a choke point in the global grain supply chain. Whatever the Kremlin claims to the contrary, its leaders are clearly all too happy to inflict economic pain on Ukraine and the West by restricting the food supply and sending the world into a panic. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index reached a record high in March, after the first month of war, and remained nearly 23 percent higher in May 2022 than over the same period last year.
International sanctions against Russia are also fueling the crisis. While trade sanctions do not target food exports directly, they have contributed to food-price inflation in Russia itself, while the African Union says financial sanctions are making it more difficult for African countries to buy badly needed grain from Russia. Russia is also a leading global producer of fertilizer, so sanctions are also disrupting the fertilizer trade, where prices were already high.
The longer this crisis lasts, the worse it will become. Ukraine’s winter wheat harvest is supposed to take place this month, but with silos still full from the unsold previous harvest, much of that wheat will rot in the fields, the gap in the global market will grow, and Ukrainian farmers will be financially devastated — even as the world offers sky-high prices for their produce — because they simply can’t get it to market. Add in the ripple effects from fuel and fertilizer shortages, and we could be looking at a multiyear global food crisis.
If the war were the only pressure point on the grain supply chain, that might be survivable, but it happens to be occurring at the same time as other major grain producers are struggling with ruined harvests and production shortfalls. India, which had previously offered to help fill the gap in wheat exports caused by the war, suffered a record-breaking heat wave in April that damaged crops and caused domestic food prices to surge. In response, the Indian government reversed its offer to alleviate the global market and banned wheat exports in mid-May instead. China, too, is looking at a diminished wheat harvest because of several factors, including flooding last autumn and recent shortages of fertilizer, seeds, and labor caused by the country’s stringent zero-COVID lockdown policies. Extreme weather, much of it attributable to climate change, is hurting wheat production in other countries, including France, Canada, and the U.S. The only good news in the global market for staple grains is that rice appears to be okay.
Obstructing international trade in staple foods at a time like this is nothing short of criminal. Unfortunately, it may also be terrifyingly effective at getting Putin what he wants. Fears of a continuing and growing food crisis are among the main drivers of “realist” arguments that the Biden administration and its NATO allies need to find a way to end the war as soon as possible at any cost — even if that means forcing Ukraine to capitulate to whatever price Putin demands for a cease-fire — just to get the wheat flowing again. That outcome would be unacceptable to the Ukrainian people, and if Putin succeeds at extracting concessions by holding the grain supply hostage, he will certainly do so again the next time he invades Ukraine — when he would have an even easier time closing off the Black Sea shipping lane. This is not a precedent Biden and his fellow NATO leaders want to set.
Fortunately, there are things the U.S. and other rich countries can do to help alleviate this crisis without giving into Black Sea blackmail. It bears repeating that the world is not actually suffering from a shortage of food but rather a series of obstacles in getting it from the places it is grown to the places it is needed. To solve that problem, world leaders either need to unblock Ukraine’s exports (a difficult task at the moment), facilitate alternatives, or help import-dependent countries produce more of their own food. The U.S., international banks, and development organizations are allocating tens of billions of dollars toward supporting farmers, agricultural development, and addressing the fertilizer supply crisis. At the beginning of this month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a $2 billion plan to strengthen the domestic food-supply chain and help smaller producers compete with Big Ag. Canada’s government is also urging farmers to grow more grain to help feed the world.
More is needed, however, not only in the short term but in addressing the bigger cracks in the foundation of the global food system exposed by this crisis. We thought we had solved the problem of famine for good and for all, but we haven’t. Not even close. Climate change and extreme weather are not going away. The weak links in global supply chains will not fix themselves, nor will this be the last time a bad actor exploits a supply-chain choke point to obtain leverage in a conflict. Governments and businesses need to take more active steps to make the global food market resilient to these ongoing threats. Those steps will come too late to help the people at risk of starving this year, but without serious action, we run the risk of famine becoming a regular feature of the human condition once again.