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Black Sea Grain Deal Lapses, Reigniting Food Insecurity Fears

Nearly 30 percent of the world’s population—or around 2.4 billion people—lacked access to adequate food in 2022, and 3.1 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet, according to the United Nations’ annual report on global food security. The Russian-Ukrainian war has chipped away at already tenuous food supply lines, and the latest action in the war could threaten them even more.

A UN-backed deal that allowed Ukraine to export grain and other food items out of three key ports during the war was set to expire yesterday. The deal—reached in July 2022—staved off worsening global hunger and prevented a surge of global food prices, NPR reported. The agreement allowed for 1,003 voyages out of the three ports, carrying a total of 32.8 million tons of grain and other products, such as sunflower oil. Approximately 725,000 tons of that wheat was shipped by the World Food Program to relieve hunger in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. While there were reports of Russian President Vladimir Putin considering an extension of the deal, it lapsed today.

This decision could be related to explosions along the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to the annexed Crimean Peninsula. The incident—which Russian officials described as a “terrorist attack” staged by Ukrainian forces—killed two people. A Kremlin spokesperson said the attack is not related to the suspension of the grain deal, however. The Russian government has been largely unsatisfied with the deal since the start, saying that it was heavily weighted in Ukraine’s favor and didn’t deliver on promises to free up Russian exports blocked by Western sanctions, according to NPR.

Just a few hours after the expiration of the Black Sea Initiative deal, grain prices were already on the rise—wheat futures increased 3.5 percent in Chicago, Illinois, today, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This situation exacerbates a range of food insecurity challenges worldwide. The UN report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, estimated that between 691 million and 783 million people faced hunger in 2022—an increase of more than 100 million people than pre-COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.

“Hunger at the global level did not worsen between 2021 and 2022, but there are many places in the world where hunger is on the rise—where people are still struggling to recover income losses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, or have been hit by climbing food and energy prices, or whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted by conflicts or extreme weather events,” the report said.

By the end of this decade, some 600 million people will likely be chronically undernourished. In Africa, 20 percent of the population is experiencing hunger—twice the global average, The Washington Post reported.

UN projections show that there are around 23 million more undernourished people today than in a scenario in which the war in Ukraine had not happened.

The Black Sea Initiative didn’t completely solve export shortages out of Ukraine, either. Because of the war, around 11 million tons of wheat exports that usually went to the poorest countries worldwide never materialized, said USAID deputy director Isobel Coleman.

“Recovery from the global pandemic has been uneven, and the war in Ukraine has affected the nutritious food and healthy diets,” Qu Dongyu, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said in a statement. “This is the ‘new normal’ where climate change, conflict, and economic instability are pushing those on the margins even further from safety.”

Out of the 58 countries currently experiencing acute food insecurity, the primary factor is economic shocks in 27 countries, conflict or insecurity in 19 countries and territories, and weather extremes in 12 countries, according to the 2023 Global Report on Food Crises from the Global Network Against Food Crises.

In Haiti, severe levels of acute food insecurity are attributable to escalating gang violence in Port-au-Prince. In addition, the economic resilience of poor countries dramatically decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic, and “they now face extended recovery periods and less ability to cope with future shocks,” according to the report.

In Somalia, an extended drought pushed nearly 7 million Somalis to face crisis levels of food insecurity this year.

In Nigeria, financial shortages and criminal gangs have put more and more people at risk of food insecurity—25 million Nigerians, as estimated by the UN in January. Farmers are at risk of kidnapping for ransom or threats of violence by organized crime gangs, and many have had to stop cultivating their crops because of the risks, the BBC reported. The Nigerian government is adding new security measures to entice farmers back to their fields. But the government also removed a fuel subsidy to help pay for those security and farming measures, and that led to increases in petroleum prices of up to 200 percent in parts of the country, and bread prices are spiking by as much as 15 percent as well.

Food crises are also leading to forced displacement. The Global Report on Food Crises found that there were 53.2 million internally displaced people in food-crisis countries or territories last year. There were 19.7 million refugees and asylum seekers in 55 food-crisis countries or territories. This is the highest rate of forcibly displaced people in the history of the report, and those displaced populations result in additional strain on food supplies and economic support.

States of Food Insecurity

The Global Report on Food Crises provides a five-phase system to measure acute food insecurity and response objectives.

Phase 1: None/Minimal

  • Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical and unsustainable strategies to access food and income.
  • Action required to build resilience and for disaster risk reduction.

Phase 2: Stressed

  • Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies.
  • Action required for disaster risk reduction and to protect livelihoods.

Phase 3: Crisis

  • Households either:
    • Have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition; or
    • Are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.
  • Urgent action is needed to protect livelihoods and reduce food income gaps.

Phase 4: Emergency

  • Households either:
    • Have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality; or
    • Are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation.
  • Urgent action required to save lives and livelihoods.

Phase 5: Catastrophe/Famine

  • Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies. Starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition are evident.
  • Urgent action required to revert/prevent widespread death and total collapse of livelihoods.

In Ethiopia, 23.6 million people were in phase 3 or above in 2022. In Nigeria, the numbers seem to be getting worse—19.5 million were in phase 3 or above in 2022, and more than 25 million are projected to be in those categories this year.