The Russian invasion of Ukraine has destabilized the global food system in ways that could unleash a “hurricane of hunger” by the end of the year, according to a new report by Eurasia Group, EY, and DevryBV Sustainable Strategies.
The “Food Security and the Coming Storm” report describes how the war has disrupted agricultural production in Ukraine and Russia, two of the world’s leading food exporters, responsible for 29% of global wheat exports, 33% of barley exports, 17% of corn exports, and a significant share of cooking oil. Far beyond the conflict’s borders, however, farmers in other countries are struggling to afford rising prices for essential inputs like fertilizer, which could cause steep harvest declines.
These shocks to the food system have caused prices in grocery stores to increase for people worldwide, putting pressure on bank accounts already strained by inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic. In some contexts, shortages are making food inaccessible. Unless world leaders implement policies to curb these ominous trends, hunger and poverty levels will rise to dangerous highs and worsen global inequality.
“Of all the implications of the Russia-Ukraine war, the one that isn’t receiving close to enough attention is the impact on global food supply,” Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, said in a statement. “Avoiding widespread hunger in the next few months must be at the top of the global multilateral agenda.”
The report was discussed at the inaugural Global Citizen NOW thought leadership summit on May 23, during the "Addressing the Global Food Crisis" panel featuring former Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Managing Director & CEO of Food Systems for the Future Ertharin Cousin, and UN IFAD Goodwill Ambassador Sabrina Dhowre Elba.
"We know that this crisis is looming," said Cousin, who is also the former executive director of the World Food Programme, during the panel.
"And that's what the paper highlights. The paper recognizes that this didn't start with Russia's invasion into Ukraine, but that was the tipping point of the challenges of what we now are calling a perfect storm. Because the issues related to the things like the weather and post-COVID and access to fertilizer — all of those issues began before, and then they were exacerbated by the challenges ... with the Russian invasion into Ukraine. What the papers states very clearly is that regardless of the outcome of this crisis in Ukraine, we are going to see more hungry people."
If the war comes to a peaceful end and countries take the actions recommended in the report, then hunger and poverty levels could see major decreases by the end of the year. The report covers significant ground, exploring various scenarios for the conflict throughout the year, documenting ongoing and anticipated impacts on the food system, showing how different countries are faring, and explaining with great clarity how certain policies can mitigate the “hurricane of hunger.”
Here are five takeaways from the report about the global repercussions of the invasion.
1. There’s a 95% chance the number of people facing food insecurity will rise by at least 142 million this year.
The authors of the report predict that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will either enter a protracted stalemate or deteriorate further. Both scenarios will be devastating for the global food system. In fact, the researchers are confident enough to say that the number of people facing food insecurity will rise by between 142 million to 243 million by November as a result of repercussions from the war, bringing the total number of people without enough food to 1.8 billion globally.
In the best case scenario envisioned by the authors — a diplomatic solution to the war — food insecurity would decline by 123 million.
“The people most vulnerable to slipping into serious hunger overwhelmingly live in countries whose governments lack the capacity to effectively subsidize food — places like Afghanistan, Mali, Haiti, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Sudan,” Cousin said in a statement for the report.
2. The number of people facing famine could increase by up to 6.9 million.
Famine is already threatening the lives of 49 million people worldwide. With the disruptions caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an additional 3.5 to 6.9 million people will likely encounter famine conditions by the end of the year, according to the report.
In the best case scenario, the number of people facing famine would likely fall by 2.7 million.
The World Food Programme defines famine as “when malnutrition is widespread, and when people have started dying of starvation through lack of access to sufficient, nutritious food.”
3. Extreme poverty could engulf an additional 201 million people.
As the war devastates Ukraine and disrupts the global food system, huge numbers of people are being pushed into extreme poverty, which is defined by the report as living on less than $2.39 per day. In fact, the authors estimate that it’s likely that at least 103 million more people, and up to 201 million more people, will face extreme poverty by the end of the year, potentially bringing the global total to more than 1.3 billion.
In the best case scenario, extreme poverty would fall by 95 million people.
4. Food prices could rise by up to 22% globally.
Farmers depend on fertilizer to ensure their crops yield a strong harvest. When the price of fertilizer goes up, that cost is often passed onto consumers. Even before the war in Ukraine, fertilizer prices had increased by 230% as a result of the pandemic.
Energy prices are also expected to keep rising as countries in Europe adapt to import restrictions from Russia.
Now, the war will only make these inputs more expensive as supply shrinks in response to the increasing isolation of Russia, the world’s leading exporter of fertilizer, and a leading exporter of fossil fuels.
These impacts will drive up operation costs for farmers, while also diminishing their harvests when they inevitably struggle to get enough fertilizer and fuel. Price increases for food could rise between 8% and 22% due to these and other war-related factors, the report notes. The sharpest price increases will be felt in the Middle East and Africa, two regions that depend heavily on agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia.
5. Countries can prevent the looming 'hurricane of hunger' if they take action now.
A catastrophic rise in hunger is not inevitable. The report argues that countries can take action now to stabilize the global food supply, prevent a rise in poverty, and ensure global food security.
In the short term, countries must work for a ceasefire and agreed peace arrangement to prevent further escalations and more suffering in Ukraine. As diplomatic efforts continue around the world, world leaders also have to facilitate the production and trade of agricultural inputs and food products in both Ukraine and Russia, the report argues.
Farmers in Ukraine have to be protected from violence, and exporters in the country must be given access to the Black Sea so they can fulfill trade demands. Similarly, sanctions on Russia should exempt food and farming inputs.
Countries such as China and India that have begun to restrict exports should ensure that trade remains open so that food prices stabilize and food availability increases. Foreign aid should also be deployed to ensure multilateral organizations like the World Food Programme can support the most vulnerable communities.
The report also discusses long-term solutions like minimizing food waste, lessening reliance on fossil fuels, and increasing market transparency.
“As we unite to address the immediate impact of this crisis on food security and nutrition, we must not lose sight of the need to address the long-term, systematic inequities that have made this crisis so dangerous for so many low-income countries,” Gargee Ghosh, president of global policy and advocacy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a statement. “It is imperative to improve resilience to such shocks by increasing investment in long- term agricultural development and nutritious food systems, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable nations.”