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Illustration by Security Management; iStock

UN Warns Ukraine Food Crisis is ‘Catastrophe on Top of a Catastrophe’

Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe, but Russia’s invasion of the country has dried up agricultural exports and put food security at risk worldwide.

The war in Ukraine has created “a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe,” said David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and this will have a global impact “beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II.”

The WFP feeds around 125 million people worldwide, but the invasion of Ukraine caused the program’s monthly expenses to spike by $71 million and forced the agency to start cutting rations because of rising food, fuel, and shipping costs, The Washington Post reported. In Yemen, 8 million people had their WFP food allotment cut in half, and it is likely to be reduced further.

Shipments of grain and other products out of Ukraine and Russia have been interrupted by sanctions, blocked ports, and bombings, the Post noted. In addition, farmers have taken up arms to fight on the front lines rather than tending to their crops. Within Ukraine, at least 45 percent of the population faces food insecurity, with adults skipping meals or eating less to feed their children, according to The New York Times

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly 30 percent of the global wheat export market, and significant portions of those foods are exported to food-insecure nations such as Egypt and Lebanon—both of which are more than 80 percent reliant on Ukrainian grain, Beasley said. Both Russia and Ukraine produce significant portions of global maize exports, and Ukraine’s sunflower oil exports usually account for 40 percent of the product’s global market.

In late March, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said that Ukraine would normally be exporting 4-5 million tons of grain per month, but due to the conflict, that volume has fallen to just a few hundred-thousand tons, Reuters reported.

“The impact (on global markets) is direct, dramatic, and large,” Solskyi said. “And it continues. Every day the situation will become more and more difficult.”

Climate conditions such as severe drought across portions of Africa have led to an increase in imported agricultural goods to bridge nutritional gaps, but as the war in Ukraine disrupts food supply chains, these importers could find themselves paying significantly higher prices for a smaller supply of products, according to analysis from The Conversation.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index was up 5.3 points in February 2022—a new all-time high.

“World wheat prices increased by 2.1 percent, largely reflecting new global supply uncertainties amidst disruptions in the Black Sea region that could potentially hinder exports from Ukraine and the Russian Federation, two major wheat exporters,” the FAO said. “World maize prices increased by 5.1 percent month-on-month, underpinned by a combination of continued crop condition concerns in Argentina and Brazil, rising wheat prices, and uncertainty regarding maize exports from Ukraine, a major exporter.”

Beasley warned that while the spotlight is currently on the conflict in Ukraine, the international community should not neglect other at-risk areas, “otherwise, you’ll have massive migration” heading to Europe and other locations.

“If we end the conflict, address the needs, we can avoid famine, destabilization of nations, and mass migration,” Beasley told the UN 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 Programme is taking food from hungry children to give to starving children.”

In 2021, the WFP reported that 23 countries face acute food insecurity, including Madagascar, where 28,000 people were at risk of famine due to an ongoing drought.

Conflict affects 65 percent of food-insecure people, the WFP reported in its Hunger Hotspots report. The COVID-19 crisis made the situation worse, affecting the food security of at least 272 million people. Between the pandemic, conflict, and climate disasters, the UN WFP warned that acute hunger is increasing worldwide—more than 41 million people risk falling into famine or famine-like conditions.

“Conflict is expected to remain the primary driver of acute hunger, alongside economic shocks—including secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—and natural hazard risks,” the report said. “Higher international food prices risk further constraining vulnerable households’ access to food, as they transmit onto domestic food prices.”