Unless you’re directly engaged in food production, the global food system can often appear seamless, with household staples magically appearing on grocery store shelves.
But the journey from cultivation to consumption is vast, complex, and arduous. When a single link in this journey fails, repercussions can be felt everywhere. And when multiple links break, food crises can emerge.
That’s what’s happening right now as a result of the war in Ukraine, which could lead to 500 million people facing acute hunger over the course of the year unless immediate steps are taken to stop the conflict and shore up food production, according to experts who consulted Global Citizen.
Both Ukraine and Russia are leading agricultural producers and exporters. Since the conflict began, their exports have essentially dried up and the impacts have been felt around the world, with food prices rising and stockpiles diminishing.
This catastrophic development comes amid the lingering disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed significant challenges to farmers, food processors, and supply chains, and the ongoing devastation wreaked by climate change.
In a Ukraine Call to Action message shared with Global Citizen on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed a "food provision crisis," and said the fact that Ukraine is one of the top agricultural producers in the world will “not only [affect] Ukrainian citizens, but people all over the world, the middle class, and the poorest population."
“All of you may suffer if the war against us will not end,” Zelenskyy said. “It is very painful. How are you going to cover the deficiency of food if we will not have the sowing in Ukraine right now?
“How much will prices for food go up in your countries, in your cities, for your families if we will not have the crop [harvest] this year?”
What You Need to Know About the War in Ukraine’s Impact on Food
- Russia and Ukraine account for around 25% of the world’s wheat exports and are significant suppliers of corn, barley, and vegetable oil.
- More than 276 million people faced severe hunger prior to the conflict, and this number could nearly double as a result of the war and other impacts.
- The World Food Programme gets nearly 50% of its wheat from the Ukraine-Russia region.
How the War Impacts the Global Food System
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the country’s economy to a standstill. As a result, food production has been dramatically curbed except for the servicing of the country’s army and remaining population. Even domestically, however, food shortages are growing.
Russia’s relentless shelling of towns and cities has caused the fast-growing refugee crisis in recent history, with more than 2 million people fleeing to other countries since the fighting began. An even larger number of people have been displaced within the country.
Many of the people who would be planting, tending to, and harvesting crops have been forced to leave their homes. It’s feared that the massive process of seeding Ukrainian soil every spring will not take place this year, leaving huge swaths of land fallow.
Some of Ukraine’s most vital breadbaskets, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, are sites of extreme Russian occupation and violence, according to Reuters. Even if the war stops soon, it’s unlikely that the country’s agricultural system will be able to rebound in time to provide exports to the world.
Countries like Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan all import more than $250 million worth of Ukrainian wheat annually, according to Bloomberg. Many other countries that rely on Ukraine for wheat and other food exports currently face food crises of their own, including Yemen and Libya, according to Foreign Policy. Lebanon, a country heavily dependent on food imports from Ukraine and Russia, now faces a prospect of just a month’s worth of wheat reserves left, according to Al Jazeera.
As these countries look elsewhere to feed their populations, wholesale wheat prices are surging, which will trickle down to marketplaces, making it harder for ordinary people to afford meals. Some countries such as China are buying up stockpiles from other countries to account for the shortfall, leading to even higher prices.
Russia’s agricultural exports have also been slowed by the war, in part because of the heavy sanctions that have been imposed on the country. Many of the world’s leading fertilizer producers are located in Russia and countries that rely on these essential inputs for their own farms have struggled to find replacements.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused global hunger rates to skyrocket, stretching the budgets and resources of humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme. Now as food prices rise, it will be harder to get adequate supplies to existing hunger crises, let alone the new ones that are forming in the wake of the war.
These impacts are happening against a broader backdrop of climate change. While conflict remains the No. 1 cause of food shortages and famine, the growing impacts of the climate crisis — from extreme droughts to extreme floods — are making it harder to grow crops in many parts of the world.
Ukraine, for instance, is forecast to lose agricultural productivity as a result of these impacts by the middle of the century. At a time when it could be investing in climate adaptation measures and transitioning toward regenerative agriculture, the country is engaged in a brutal war, which, in addition to killing thousands and destroying infrastructure, is itself a major driver of climate change.
The global food system has been in a state of increasing fragility for years now. The last thing the global population needs is a drawn-out war between two of the leading food producers.
What Can Global Citizens Do to Help?
While the global food crisis will get worse in the months ahead, there are countless ways to minimize the harm to communities everywhere.
First and foremost, countries have to work alongside the UN to achieve a ceasefire in Ukraine and then lasting peace in the country. Once this happens, agricultural production can begin to ramp up and accommodate growing food shortages. In the meantime, support should be extended to farmers in the region working through the conflict.
Countries with large food stocks can distribute essential commodities around the world to ease the disruptions caused by the war, while also providing funding support to the World Food Programme so that it can deliver essential supplies to hunger crises around the world, including to the growing population of Ukrainian refugees.
You can take action with Global Citizen to call on world leaders to facilitate the end of the conflict and support those most affected.
Read the full transcript of Zelenskyy's video below:
The war always has catastrophic outcomes —the outcomes which nobody could predict but which hit everybody, all of us.
It is like a tsunami — its cause can be on one side of the ocean but the devastating effects could spread thousands kilometers away. We are already now on the doorstep of such a tsunami. Food provision crisis. Severe price crisis which will hit everyone and it will touch (that is going to affect) not only Ukrainian citizens, but people all over the world, the middle class, and the poorest population — dozens of countries all around the world.
Ukraine is one of the biggest worldwide producers of agricultural products: corn, sunflower oil, wheat, barley. Every year we are exporting millions of tons of agricultural products for dozens of billions US dollars. But would we be able to give for the world market as much as we gave before (in the past)?
The war is ongoing. Look at the price of wheat already now —maximum in fourteen years. Next will be corn, then barley if we won’t have deliveries from Ukraine, which, by the way, Ukraine is the top exporter. Egypt, Tunisia and other African countries, Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, India, Pakistan, China, Spain and others, members of the European Union; all of you may suffer if the war against us will not end. It is very painful.
How are you going to cover the deficiency of food if we will not have the sowing in Ukraine right now? How much will prices for food go up in your countries, in your cities, for your families if we will not have the crop this year?
No one country wouldn’t save regular economic activity during a full-scale war. This is what the war of Russia against Ukraine is.
It is simply impossible, especially when the war is so brutal against us. The full-scale war aimed at destroying us, Ukrainians.
For two weeks already Russian troops have been deliberately ruining all our infrastructure. Burning down residential houses, launching rockets aiming at hospitals, schools, bombing large-scale bakeries, warehouses with goods, blowing up fuel storages, shooting at people for no reason. Just regular people on the roads, civilians. A maternity hospital took a direct hit just today. It’s atrocious!
Cities in the East of our country are withstanding a siege like in the Middle Ages — without food, without water. It’s an unnatural famine, children die there of dehydration, this happened yesterday and it is all true. It’s an artificial famine, children die under debris after the shelling and so on. And all these are our children. Our future.
This is how we give them to these beasts, to this attack by Russia on our country, on our independence. In the fruitful South of our country, close to the capital — the battles are everywhere.
The West has millions of refugees. You can see this in our heartwarming country because of the Russian invasion. Are you certain you will not see something like this in your country? I can’t be sure.
Citizen protests because of the price crisis, hungry riots. Is that what you want? Please tell me if you are ready for this.
I repeat once again —Egypt, Tunisia, other countries in Africa, Middle East, Arabian peninsula, India, Pakistan, China, Spain, other countries of the European Union. Ukraine needs peace. And you, your people, regular people not politicians, although I’m certain that leaders of the countries too, you all need peace in Ukraine. You have to act. Now.
Disclosure: The World Food Programme is a funding partner of Global Citizen.