Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused catastrophic loss of life and destruction to the country’s cultural heritage.
The relentless bombing of civilian areas and key parts of infrastructure has also generated the fastest-growing refugee crisis in modern history. As huge sections of Ukraine become unsafe, the country’s ability to produce and export food is increasingly jeopardized, leading to food shortages within the country. This also creates concern for billions of people around the world, particularly for communities facing other humanitarian crises.
Ukraine is a leading exporter of major food commodities such as wheat, corn, and vegetable oil. The inevitable decline in these exports is already causing shocks throughout the food system.
For Ertharin Cousin — former executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), a Global Citizen funding partner — the escalating global crisis is reminiscent of the food price crisis of 2007 and 2008 that led to soaring levels of food insecurity and geopolitical instability around the world.
Experts warn that the number of people facing acute hunger could rise to 500 million as a result of the conflict. But that’s not a foregone conclusion. Easing the pressures on the food system begins with ending the conflict and achieving peace in Ukraine, while also supporting smallholder farmers around the world and ensuring that humanitarian organizations can access supplies at a fair price.
“We need a food system that meets the environmental and the health needs of populations across the globe, while also providing economic support for all the actors and stakeholders across the food system,” Cousin said. “That’s a just and sustainable food system.”
In our interview with Cousin, she discussed the repercussions of the war on the global food system, what can be done to support smallholder farmers, and the importance of supporting refugees.
Global Citizen: How are farmers and agricultural producers in Ukraine being affected by the war?
Ertharin Cousin: They’re being affected because it’s an ongoing conflict. When there are bombs dropping, farmers don’t farm. Russia and Ukraine together represent a third of the wheat exports for the global community, and when you have Ukraine no longer farming, that will affect food imports by many countries, particularly those in the Middle East.
We should also understand that wheat is a significant commodity, but it’s also essential oils like sunflower oil, that are vital for cooking, that are being affected as well.
What are some of the repercussions on the global food system from this conflict?
The food system is quite complex, but it’s also driven by speculation on the futures market. And as the Russian invasion interrupts agricultural production in Ukraine, what we’ve also seen is an increase in wheat futures that then affects the prices of food across the globe — not just for those who purchase from Ukraine, but also the global commodity system.
This is at a time when we’ve already been experiencing higher food prices as a result of supply chain challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also disruptions caused by the climate crisis; even here in the US there’s been severe drought, and droughts and floods continue to affect the production levels of farmers across the world.
How are smallholder farmers in other countries being impacted by the war, especially considering the fact that Russia is the leading exporter of fertilizer?
In recent years, the conversation has been about, how do we support the adaptation of the 500 million farmers to the increasingly erratic climate? Now we have to factor in the challenges that farmers are experiencing by this interruption to the food system created by the invasion of Ukraine.
Say you’re a farmer in East Africa and you’re preparing for the planting season during a period of time when you’re coming off of a locust challenge, or you’re in West Africa and faced drought, and now you lack access to fertilizer. This was a problem that didn’t begin with the invasion, because fertilizer prices were already quite high because of the increase of cost and other inputs into fertilizer, and now it’s been exacerbated.
As a result, in some countries, like Rwanda for example — I was talking to someone there today — there’s no fertilizer for sale in the country. And we know that without fertilizer, farmers will still plant, but the productivity is probably 40% to 60% lower than it would be with fertilizer.
What are some other ways that the global food system is being impacted?
With the increase in prices for crude oil, the biofuels community is now suggesting that this is an opportunity to supplement biofuels production by using corn, which will take more food from the food system for human consumption, thus driving prices up for corn.
Along with the high prices for wheat, this will make access to food even more challenging. These are indicators — the biofuels, the spiraling futures, the lack of access to fertilizers and other supports to improve productivity — that are the same factors that led to the 2007-2008 food crisis. We’re now seeing these factors coming online again, but this time we have an opportunity to take the action that is necessary to address the challenges, with the goal of minimizing the food price crisis.
What do we need to do as a global community to prevent the crisis from getting worse?
First of all, I think it's an imperative that we support the refugees, internally displaced persons, and people living in Ukraine with the food and other assistance required for them to survive. We also need to support the farmers in Ukraine not just for them to farm and harvest but also to export.
There are a number of countries that have excess food stocks, and those countries should be encouraged to release those food stocks, particularly for sale to the World Food Programme to ensure that we can meet the humanitarian needs of the populations that the WFP serves, otherwise this crisis will become even more challenging.
In addition to releasing food stocks to WFP, we need to ensure that the stocks are released into the global marketplace at a pace that will ensure that we can maintain some consistency in the global food supply.
We also talk about the adaptation and work that is necessary to support the 500 million smallholder farmers. All of our actions should be aligned with our global commitment to a sustainable transition of the food system.
We need to alert the world that this is an immediate crisis for some that will increase to a more urgent food crisis for others as more countries are affected by the higher cost of imported food, and that this crisis has the potential for being very long lasting. The 2007 food crisis lasted two years, and many would argue that the 2008 food crisis is what led to the Arab Spring.
There's a significant body of research that supports a causal link between acute high price spikes and instability. In 2008, the high food price spikes resulted in riots in 40 cities around the world. These are not chronically insecure people, either. These are people who could no longer afford food, could no longer afford bread.
Even before the invasion, WFP was warning that because of COVID, the number of chronically food insecure had increased by 100 million and the number of people facing dire hunger, close to famine, was about 45 million. And most of those people are in conflict countries, and the reason they were raising these issues was because of a lack of financial contributions to meet the needs of those in danger.
As the world pivots to meet the needs of the Ukrainian refugees, we’re still not seeing the level of support that’s necessary to support the ones who are already in dire situations, and the cost of meeting their needs will increase because of the effects of Ukraine on the price of food.
What’s something that’s being overlooked about the food crisis that people need to pay more attention to?
I think that everyone is focusing on the energy challenges and the high price of energy right now, when we have this food crisis spiraling. Without the same level of prioritization, we will see the detrimental impacts that we all want to avoid. I also think that while the attention of the world is focused on Ukraine, we cannot diminish the importance of meeting the food needs of starving children around the world.
What can Global Citizens do to help?
We always need an active citizenry, that continues to demand of our elected officials that they must support humanitarian as well as the development needs of those who are affected by not only the Ukrainian crisis but also the potential higher cost of food. We need citizens who lobby governments for the financial support, as well as the political support, that will ensure access to food.
As citizens we also need to ensure that those who have the means to contribute are doing so to support humanitarian operations.
Assuming we can navigate the current challenges, what do you hope to see by 2030 as far as the global food system is concerned?
We need a food system that meets the environmental and the health needs of populations across the globe, while also providing economic support for all the actors and stakeholders across the food system. That’s a just and sustainable food system.