External Publication

Ukraine War Threatens Global Food Security

by Jose Ma. Luis Montesclaros and Margareth Sembiring
Published on 5 September 2022


Six months since the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, World Bank data shows that inflation has been high at above 5 percent across almost all low-income and middle-income countries globally, with food inflation as high as 31.2 percent in East and Southern Africa in June.

To protect domestic food security, over 34 countries have implemented food export bans and export-limiting measures, and over 86 countries have placed trade measures impacting food and fertilizers. These are triggering what the United Nations has dubbed as the “the largest cost-of-living crisis of the 21st century to date”.

Conflict has long been identified as a significant driver of food insecurity and hunger. Within conflict situations, farmers are driven away from fields/farms, agricultural assets and food stock are damaged, and logistics and supply chains are disrupted. Combatants have also targeted agriculture infrastructure and production. Islamic State fighters in Iraq reportedly sabotaged irrigation wells using rubble, oil and foreign objects, thereby killing plants and livestock.

These cause instability in food security in conflict-torn areas. Food production in sub-Saharan African shrank by 12.3 percent during conflict times between 1970 and 1994, and the Central African Republic’s cereal production dropped amid its civil war. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, global undernourishment increased to 815 million in 2016 due to violent conflicts and climate-related shocks, with about 400 million living in conflict zones.

In the first month and a half of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one in three Ukrainian households were already food insecure. Ukraine is no stranger to the impacts of conflict on hunger, holding a painful collective memory of Holodomor (“death famine”) which killed millions in the first decade of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union by 1933.

While the impacts of conflict on food security within countries are rather established, what makes today’s crisis different, is that the conflict within Ukraine is also worsening food insecurity beyond its Ukraine’s borders.

Ukraine and Russia are key producers of agricultural commodities, contributing 29 percent of global wheat exports, 62 percent of sunflower oil, and more than 12 percent of maize. The blockade of Ukrainian grain exports thus sparked global fears over heightened food prices.

Ninety-four countries are projected to be impacted by either food, energy, or finance concerns due to the war in Ukraine. Three-quarters of the 1.6 billion inhabitants in these countries are likely to vulnerable to these three challenges simultaneously, creating a “perfect-storm” making a cost-of-living crisis likely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the impacts of the war in Ukraine on international food security more acute. For countries not directly involved in the conflict, income support is a normal recourse in protecting consumers from war-induced international food price inflation. However, owing to pandemic-driven economic, countries’ budgets are weaker now. Government debts across advanced, emerging, and low-income developing countries have grown significantly from end-2019 to end-2020, with fiscal balances declining over this same period.

Even before the war, the world was already battling rising energy and food prices. Reduced economic activity in early 2020 translated to a reduced demand for oil, falling oil prices, and oil producers cutting production growth targets. By 2021, though, when economies reopened, oil demand for electricity generation in coal plants increased by 9 percent, causing energy prices to rise. Energy price inflation led subsequently led to higher prices of energy-intensive fertilizers, thus feeding into higher food prices.

Furthermore, countries were already seeing farming disruptions in early 2020, with the fall army worm destroying crops in Asia and Africa; the African swine fever infecting hogs in China and other Asian countries; and droughts and floods impacting grain-exporting countries like Pakistan and Thailand. Pandemic lockdowns further induced crop productivity losses by disrupting planting and harvesting schedules, further driving up food prices.

By mid-May 2022, global prices were already 30 percent higher than in the previous year. Significant importers of grains, fertilisers and oils from Ukraine and Russia. Countries in North Africa and Western/Central Asia, which source more than 30 percent of wheat from the two countries, immediately felt the impacts.

Ongoing climate-related challenges further exacerbates the war-induced food insecurity. Conflict zones hit by climate shocks have experienced more severe and acute food insecurity, seen in 14 out of 34 food crisis countries in 2017.

Within Ukraine, temperatures in the past 60 years have risen at a rate faster than Europe, and sometimes even faster than the world’s. While wheat and soybean are relatively resilient against changing climates, crops like barley, maize and sunflower are estimated to see significant declines in yields in the next 10-30years. Khersonska, one of the oblasts attacked by Russia in eastern Ukraine, is among the top five oblasts projected to be most impacted.

Hunger can fuel further tensions, either intercommunal and cross-border.

Less than a week into Russia’s invasion, 141 countries voted for a UN resolution demanding Russia to end the war as soon as possible. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested the West’ to help “close the sky”. Multiple military, diplomatic, and economic measures have been rolled out to force Russia’s hand to halt its invasion. However, ongoing measures have only resulted in gradual shipments of military equipment that fall far short of providing Ukraine full protection.

Countries fear that a harder stance may harm their own security and economic interests. This has led countries like India and China to take calibrated, business-as-usual approaches with Russia. While Indonesia has condemned Russia’s aggression, it has not acceded to Ukraine’s request for military assistance. Instead, it has taken the role of mediator as Group of 20 president, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visiting presidents Putin and Zelensky and urging Russia to stop the war immediately based on food security concerns.

Western leaders have similarly expressed their wishes of not wanting to see Russia win the war. Yet even the United States, which has disbursed approximately US$4.6 billion security packages as of June 2022, has started to recognize that this may not be enough to help Ukraine defend its territorial integrity. There is growing concern of a military stalemate as neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to make major territorial gains.

The UN-brokered negotiations have led to a recent removal of blockades of Ukrainian grains. While this was accompanied by signs of stabilizing global food markets threats to global food security go beyond simply resuming grain exports from Ukraine. The risk of a potential global food crisis leading to a significant destabilising impact on economies and societies around the world is a spectre that confronts us today.

At bottom, world leaders will need to earnestly consider putting an end to the war, against the ramifications of a potential global food crisis globally. The latter can be an equally, if not more, significant destabilizer to their countries from economic, political, and societal perspectives.