Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilized European security and the global energy market – and now food could be next.
Dozens of countries in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa already suffering from food insecurity depend on the plentiful supplies of wheat, corn and vegetable oil from Russia and Ukraine, and experts say the conflict is driving up food prices and could increase global hunger.
“It’s another example of conflict emerging in the world at a time when the world simply cannot sustain it,” said Steve Taravella, senior spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). “Hunger rates are rising significantly around the world, and one of the biggest drivers of hunger is man-made conflict.”
Even before the conflict, global food prices were already at their highest levels since 2011, thanks to volatile climate conditions such as drought and excessive rainfall, as well as wider supply chain disruptions caused by Covid-19. With 855 million people already suffering from food insecurity, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes at an already challenging time for global hunger. The disruption to food production is also putting Ukrainians – at least 100,000 of whom have already been displaced – at higher risk of starvation, underscoring the strong link between conflict and food insecurity.
What happens next depends on the progress of the war and financial sanctions imposed on Russia, and experts warn against predicting exactly how the conflict will affect global food prices and stocks. But given the huge role played by Russia and Ukraine in supplying the world with food – particularly wheat – instability in the region’s food production and exports could have repercussions well beyond the theater of war.
When farms become battlefields
To get a sense of how important the farmers of Ukraine and Russia are to the rest of the world, you have to understand how much they export.
Ukraine and Russia are the top exporters of staple grains and vegetable oils in 2020, according to a Vox analysis of International Trade Center food export data, the world’s top wheat exporter. Together, Ukraine and Russia accounted for about 26% of global wheat exports in 2020.
Wheat and corn prices rose before the war. On February 24, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Chicago wheat futures surged to their highest level since the start of the year. (They’ve since fallen — a partial sign of just how much volatility war can bring to global food markets.)
Ukraine and Russia are major food suppliers for low- and middle-income countries where tens of millions of people are already food insecure. Prices continue to rise because of the conflict, and further price increases as the war unfolds could lead to greater food instability and hunger – not just in Ukraine but around the world.
Egypt and Turkey rely on combined Russian-Ukrainian imports for 70% of their wheat supply, while 95% of Ukraine’s wheat exports in 2020 went to Asia (including the Middle East) or Africa. In the Middle East and North Africa region, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon depend on Ukraine for a high percentage of their wheat supply, while Egypt imports more than half of its wheat from either Russia or Ukraine. Countries in South and Southeast Asia such as Indonesia and Bangladesh also rely heavily on local wheat. The top importers of Ukrainian wheat in 2020 were Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, while Russia provides a large percentage of the wheat for many sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria and Sudan.
Disruptions in these exports are likely to only add to the already existing food insecurity in these countries. According to the WFP, almost half of Yemen’s 30 million people have an inadequate diet. In Bangladesh, 29 million people are malnourished and over 30% of children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. In Indonesia and Egypt, 26 million and 10 million people respectively live with inadequate food intake, while more than a quarter of Nigeria’s population – 55 million people, more than the entire population of Ukraine – suffer from inadequate food intake.
According to Alex Smith, food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, rising wheat prices could be particularly devastating in countries with already high levels of food insecurity. In Yemen, where protracted conflict has already exacerbated food insecurity, this is an “added bad element to an already bad scenario,” Smith said. In Libya, a supply disruption and higher prices would add to existing food insecurity by “preventing the already food-insecure people from getting the small amount of food they can already get and also pushing more people into the food-insecure category.” he added.
Lebanon, whose wheat silos were destroyed in the Beirut port blast two years ago and relies on Ukraine for more than half of its wheat, is already looking for alternative import deals, but hunger may rise wherever a government doesn’t address it can afford to replace wheat were previously from Ukraine.
Russia is also the world’s largest fertilizer exporter, and according to Shirley Mustafa, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), pre-conflict fertilizer price spikes were already contributing to food price increases. A further disruption in fertilizer production or exports would hurt agriculture in Europe and potentially contribute to even higher food prices around the world.
Ukraine’s agriculture is more likely to be hit by direct conflict than Russia, as farmers are being forced off their farms while port closures are already restricting exports. “In two to three weeks, farmers in Ukraine could start the planting season,” reported Iurii Mykhailov, a Kiev resident, in Successful Farming. “But the Russian invasion changed everything. Due to military hostilities, there will be major fuel and fertilizer shortages. There will certainly be a lack of credit. There may even be shortages of machine operators due to military casualties etc.”
Russian farmers are unlikely to be directly affected by conflict, Smith said, but the country’s exports could be affected in other ways. “The [region’s] big exporters – Ukraine, Russia and Romania – ship grain from Black Sea ports that could be disrupted by possible military operations,” another WFP spokesman told me on February 24; Since then, Ukraine has already closed ports and ships have been damaged by attacks.
“I think there’s less risk of sanctions stopping wheat exports from Russia,” Smith told me. “Actually, the real concern for me is whether, in the event of sanctions or the conflict fueling the economic hardship of the Russian people, Russia itself will halt exports, in which case Putin could simply say we should cut exports as much as possible We can keep food prices down in Russia.”
This would not be unprecedented – after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Russia temporarily suspended grain exports for a few months, and the country halted exports for almost a year in 2010 after a series of droughts and wildfires. This decision has pushed up prices around the world – and not just among Russian grain importers.
How conflict drives up the price of bread
Global food prices have risen almost continuously since June 2020, said Mustafa, who works on the FAO Food Price Index, which measures monthly changes in a basket of international food prices. The FAO food price index is now the highest since 2011.
The increase is due to a variety of factors, including weather anomalies caused by the La Niña climate pattern, which has led to underwater in places like South America and overwater in Southeast Asia. In the wheat sector, the US and Canada, two major producers, were also hit by the drought. Covid-19 continued to be a factor on both the supply and demand side.
Conflicts have been a reason for rising food prices in the past. Researchers reported in a study examining 113 African markets between 1997 and 2010 that “a feedback loop exists between food prices and political violence: higher food prices increase conflict within markets, and conflict increases food prices.” Food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa as of 2014 was due to violent conflict, which increased in relative importance compared to the 2009-2018 drought. There is also a feedback cycle – war-related increases in food prices contribute to further conflict, even in places not themselves involved in the original war.
Mustafa told me that the impact of disruptions depends on where the crop supply is concentrated – for example, if there is a high concentration of exports, other countries cannot compensate for the disruption, but if there are many exporters, other countries could make the difference turn off. “It also depends on the type of disruption you’re seeing — the length, the duration. If it’s relatively short-term, markets could potentially adjust fairly quickly. If it’s a slightly longer-term disruption that’s focused on just a few players, then you might also be able to see the disruption spurring production elsewhere to offset that.”
A hungrier world is a less stable one
In a worst-case scenario, the disruption in commodity prices could also contribute to conflicts beyond Ukraine’s borders in countries that rely heavily on their grain producers. Conflict not only causes higher food prices; Higher food prices can contribute to conflict even in areas of the world not directly affected by the original event. Researchers Jasmien de Winne and Gert Peersman found that increases in food prices due to crop shocks outside African countries increase violence inside them.
“Although most acts of violence are unlikely to be related to higher food prices but rather to broader economic conditions or political ills,” the authors write, “these income shocks can be a catalyst for violent events.”
Mustafa said that while FAO is monitoring the situation, given the uncertainties in the situation, the agency cannot make any predictions about the specific crisis. Taravella similarly said WFP is in “observation mode” and ready to provide emergency assistance as soon as possible.
The reality is that hunger almost always follows conflict. And when that conflict occurs in one major agricultural exporter like Ukraine and affects another like Russia, the casualties could ultimately extend well beyond the two warring countries.