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The War in Ukraine Is a War on Food

By Mary Riddle

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the world was already grappling with the rising cost of food as factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain shocks, and climate-related disasters sent global markets into chaos.

The United Nations' World Food Programme is now warning that the world’s food crisis is likely to worsen. The Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed an already-teetering global food market into a tailspin, and a confluence of crises is poised to create a global hunger emergency. 

Contributing factors in the growing food crisis

In 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN classified approximately 130 million people around the world as “acutely food insecure.” The pandemic saw those numbers rise to 276 million. Now, due to the crisis in Ukraine, that number has soared again to 345 million and is expected to continue growing.

Ukraine is responsible for about 10 percent of the world’s wheat exports. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it immediately imposed a blockade on Black Sea ports, the country’s primary outlets for exporting grain. Currently, The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 25 million pounds of wheat and grain are stuck in Black Sea ports. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa heavily rely on Ukrainian wheat, and the blockade has sent prices soaring across those regions — and has affected food security in other parts of the world as well.

At the same time that Ukraine’s 2021 grain harvest is stuck at port, farmers worldwide are expressing concerns about a related, drastic decrease in yields for 2022. Early spring is a critical time for agriculture, but many farmers were unable to access adequate levels of fertilizers. Russia has historically been the largest exporter of fertilizer in the world, but this year, the Russian government banned fertilizer exports from March until May, prime planting season for many crops dependent upon synthetic fertilizers. The fertilizer export ban has been lifted in Russia and the U.S. has since created exceptions for fertilizer in its sanctions against Russia. However, many agricultural, shipping and insurance companies in the U.S. are refusing to participate in agricultural trade with Russia out of an abundance of caution. Without adequate access to fertilizer, yields will likely be less plentiful. 

The rising cost of natural gas is compounding the fertilizer predicament. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are made using natural gas, and the skyrocketing cost of natural gas caused the prices of nitrogen fertilizers to rise to record highs. The increase in the prices of crude oil have also raised the cost of agricultural production and distribution, and ultimately, the cost of food for consumers.

Beyond Ukraine, the implications for the global food supply

To stem the impacts of global price inflation, some countries are banning exports of grain and food. Since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 20 countries have banned or severely restricted grain exports. India banned grain exports in May, and on July 7, the Indian government imposed restrictions on the export of wheat flour. 

Such protective actions are likely to exacerbate the increased global prices and make food that much more expensive for countries who depend on food imports. Even before India’s ban on wheat exports, global export bans affected 17 percent of the world’s food supply, as measured in calories. Worldwide, food prices are 75 percent higher than they were in mid-2020, and export bans are expected to contribute to a further increase.

While consumers everywhere will likely feel the pinch of rising prices, people living in poverty and in countries dependent upon food imports are at the greatest risk of harm. In 2020, Ukraine was the largest supplier of food to the World Food Programme, an essential safety net for acutely food insecure populations worldwide. 

The impacts of the Russian invasion, from fertilizer export bans to port blockades, has not only been catastrophic for the Ukrainian economy, but is forcing tens of millions of people around the globe closer to hunger.

Image credit: Diana Vyshniakova via Unsplash

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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