The situation worsens with each passing day: As the war in Ukraine persists, tens of millions of people living thousands of miles away are facing the prospect of crushing hunger — a calamity with direct links to the war. The latest blow came this week, when Russia destroyed a food warehouse at a key port along Ukraine’s southeastern coast.
As Grid has reported, Russia and Ukraine are critical to the world’s food supply, and conflict between these two producers of basic staples has knock-on effects well beyond the front lines. Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, corn, barley and cooking oil; in the three decades since the Cold War ended, Ukraine has gone from “bread basket” for the Soviet Union to a central source of sustenance for many other parts of the world.
The war has cut deeply into both Ukraine’s production and its ability to export; Ukrainian grain exports were down by roughly 40 percent in the first half of this month compared with last year, and Russia is currently blocking some 25 million tons of grain earmarked for shipment. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that the figure could triple by the fall. The Russians have also been accused of stealing farm machinery, pilfering grain warehouses and shipping Ukrainian produce out of the country; recent satellite imagery shows Russian-flagged ships carrying Ukrainian grain to Syria.
Supplies to the world from Russia, meanwhile, are being affected by both the international sanctions imposed on Moscow as well as by the war’s disruption of shipping routes.
It’s already a crisis for countries that depend heavily on Russian and Ukrainian staples. Egypt and Lebanon rely on Ukraine and Russia for more than two-thirds of their wheat imports; in Thailand, close to a third of wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia; and in Malaysia, more than 65 percent of sunflower oil imports can be traced to the two countries.
Prices are also rising, and fast. A World Bank index that tracks the cost of a basket of staples was up 15 percent in the March to April period — and more than 80 percent higher than two years ago. All told, economists at the bank reckon that food prices will rise 20 percent this year.
David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), has been sounding the alarm. Earlier this month, he told the Guardian that “we are facing hell on earth if we do not respond immediately” to the food crisis being fanned by the Ukraine War. Already, Beasley said, the agency has been forced to cut what it distributes to several countries. “It is a very, very frightening time,” he said. “The best thing we can do right now is end that damn war in Russia and Ukraine.”
Grid spoke to Beasley’s predecessor, Ertharin Cousin, who ran the WFP from 2012 to 2017, about the crisis, the parts of the world at greatest risk and the actions the world can take to avoid the worst-case scenarios. Failure to do so, she said, could mean “as many as 100 to 150 million more people going acutely hungry by the end of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023 if we fail to address these issues with the level of urgency, and the scale, that is necessary,”
Cousin is now a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the founder of Food Systems for the Future, an impact investment fund focused on the food and agriculture sector.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: The conflict in Ukraine has led to a lot of discussion and a lot of reporting, including by us here at Grid, about global food security. We’ve seen a drastic drop in shipments of food from Ukraine, and we’ve seen rising food prices around the world. As we near the four-month anniversary of the war, what, at this moment, are your chief concerns when it comes to the fallout in this area from the conflict?
Ertharin Cousin: So first let’s take a step back, because the reality is that the food crisis did not begin with Ukraine. Covid, increased fuel prices, as well as climate change had already begun to affect the supply and availability of food around the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the inability because of that to move food out of the Black Sea — what that did was exacerbate and create what many of us have called the perfect storm of a food crisis that had already begun but has now become a potential hunger fiasco across many places around the globe.
What concerns me most is that in many countries that are most directly affected, governments lack the financial resources to, for example, support smallholder farmers that would allow them — the farmers — to plant crops, which in turn could fill the gaps in the global system. And they lack the financial resources to support the social safety nets that are necessary to ensure that, as prices increase, the most vulnerable continue to maintain access to food. This is when hunger turns to starvation, when governments lack the capacity to provide assistance to their most vulnerable citizens during times of food shortages and high food prices.
G: So who, in your assessment, is most at risk right now, as the conflict drags on?
EC: I’m particularly concerned about the net importing countries that have the most challenging fiscal positions, and those are in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, 100 percent of their grains are derived from Ukraine. You of course also have Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq — a significant portion of their commodities come from Ukraine as well. Other countries in the Horn of Africa have follow-on impacts, because not only do they have this gap from the missing grain from Ukraine, but they’re also experiencing yet another season of drought. And that’s affecting countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the challenge is not limited to those countries. We are seeing follow-on effects in Central America and South America. Why? Because if 30 percent of global grain exports derive from Russia and Ukraine, and you take that out of the system, basic economics tells you that everything else in the system increases in price. As a result, any country that is a net importing country of grain is in a position where they will experience higher food prices.
The additional effect that we have not talked about is the high price of and availability of fertilizer, because much of the fertilizer in the world also comes from that region. And as a result, what we are seeing is smallholder farmers across the globe — in places as far away as Asia — growing concerned about access to enough fertilizer for the upcoming fall planting season. All these effects, the longer this crisis in Ukraine goes on, continue to mount and increase, and affect ever more countries, ever more people.
G: Who can fill these gaps? Are there countries that could step up? We’ve seen discussion about India, for example, because of its bumper wheat harvests. But they’ve stopped exports recently because they’re looking at domestic concerns. So who can step in?
EC: Yes, let’s start from the top. When it comes to the question of who can and needs to produce more, we need to ensure that the fiscal issues that are affecting the countries we’ve already talked about — the inability of governments to subsidize smallholder farmers and provide social safety nets — we need to address those issues now. That means that we need the G-7, for example, to catalyze the big multilateral financial institutions to support access to capital, to allow those countries to access new financial tools that will provide them with the ability to meet the needs of their populations.
Often what you hear is that there is a process, but what we need now is for the multilateral banks, the World Bank, the [International Monetary Fund], to demonstrate flexibility, not bureaucracy. That will only happen if G-7 encourages, supports and drives that. So finance is a big piece of this.
You mentioned India, and at the beginning of this crisis, India increased their release of commodities into the global system. But then, when the climate-driven heat spike occurred over there earlier this year, resulting in a projected reduction in the harvest that’s presently in the ground, they began to take policy steps — as many countries do — to protect their own domestic food security. And this is what we need to avoid. We need to avoid countries taking actions — export barriers, export bans — that affect the global transfer of commodities in what is a very complex system.
We just saw Turkey suggest that they are going to implement export bans. Now we know that back in 2008, export bans were a critical factor in creating high prices that resulted in instability and riots in some 40 cities across the globe. So it is imperative that we avoid export bans.
It is also quite important that countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, where you have the opportunity for increasing production — that this work begins to happen. President [Joe] Biden recently announced a commitment to supporting production in the Midwestern U.S., as well as to support the release of some of our stored commodities into the global system. You will see more of that kind of action necessary.
G: You successor at the WFP, David Beasley, said, just the other week, that we are “facing hell on earth,” and the WFP has had to cut supplies to some places. As someone who used to run that organization, could you take us inside, so to speak, and tell us about the kinds of decisions facing your former colleagues as this war continues?
EC: What is important to note for your audience is that 50 percent of the wheat commodities that the WFP purchases for distribution to the most vulnerable were derived from Ukraine. So now they’re forced to go into the global market to purchase similar commodities at a much higher price. And what they are finding is the cost is 50 to 75 percent more than what they paid this time last year. That increases the cost of each operation and reduces the number of people they are able to feed. This means they require an increase in their budget.
Now, David Beasley has suggested that they will need $23 billion in order to meet the needs of all those who were in need before and will now find themselves in need of food as a result of this crisis. Let me put that into perspective for you. When I left the WFP [in 2017], we were raising $6 billion a year. And the challenge is that you never receive as much money as you need, and that forces you to implement what we would call cut rations. Imagine that. You’re already providing the minimal amount that an individual needs to meet their physical requirements, and then to cut that in order to feed more people — so I’m just leaving everyone hungry. I’m not fully meeting the needs of anyone. And that is what they’re finding themselves forced to do.
Even worse, when the numbers don’t match the need, it means you feed the most vulnerable. You feed those on the verge of starvation, you feed those who otherwise have no other access to food, and many of those people are in conflict situations. There’s a line that David uses that I embrace — that it forces you to take the food from the hungry to feed the starving in order to keep people from dying.
And so the question you ask is so important, because you ask what happens if this conflict continues? What happens if we don’t invest in those smallholder farmers to fill the gaps in the global system, what happens if we don’t provide those social safety nets? The challenge right now is that we have a high-food-price crisis. The challenge is that food is available, but inaccessible, because it’s unaffordable. The probability of moving to an availability crisis on a global level increases as you miss harvests.
G: I wanted to ask about something you touched upon earlier. Do you think, given the importance of multilateral finance and the need for these global institutions to step up to help solve this food crisis, that the big world powers have been slow to recognize the wide-reaching impact of this conflict? There is of course the devastating impact on the ground in Ukraine. But do you think Washington, London or Paris have been too slow to recognize the broader fallout?
EC: I don’t believe they’ve been too slow. The challenges of food security, hunger and nutrition are challenges that historically don’t rise to the political level. At places like the G-7 and G-20, they’re handled by the agriculture and development ministries. But early on, back in March, the Germans signaled that food security, hunger — that these would be included on the political agenda for the G-7. There have been regular conversations about issues related to food security. The question, is, out of these conversations, what outcomes will be delivered? The world is waiting, including the countries most directly affected.
The African Union leadership has said, publicly, that look, with covid, they did not receive vaccines. Climate change was not their creation, but they are the victims of a changing climate, which is having an effect on their livelihoods, on their lives. And now this war. They’re not in Europe, and while they empathize with Ukraine, they expect the leaders of the global community to recognize the need to take significant action to address the issues we’ve been discussing.
G: Looking to the longer term, we just saw the spring planting season in Ukraine unfold amid conflict. The government there tried to do what it could to keep things on track. But if this war continues, could you elaborate a little more for us what we are looking at later this year or next year? Even if this conflict ends today, we’re going to be living with the fallout for some time, right?
EC: Correct. Each day that this goes forward, each planting season that we miss, each opportunity for moving food from one part of the world to another that we miss, the more challenging the problem becomes.
Economists at different institutions have suggested that we could see as many as 100 to 150 million more people going acutely hungry by the end of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023 if we fail to address these issues with the level of urgency, and the scale, that is necessary to avoid an availability problem.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.