From Covid 19 to War in Ukraine: Anatomy of the Global Food Crisis in 2022

by Hilal Elver*

In March 2020 the world was shut down along with much of the global economy to avoid the spread of the powerful virus COVID-19. Suddenly, the so-called “efficient” global food supply chains were dismantled, harvests were left in the soil, food workers returned to their homes, the major organizing principle of supply and demand balance all but disappeared, and quite simply, the global food market as we knew it came alarmingly close to collapse. COVID-19 arrived at a time that food production was historically high, and prices low, but constraints on the movements of people and goods left many people without food, and global food systems entered an unusual stalemate. These results were not entirely unpredictable, but the world was unprepared to cope with the challenge. This was true in many countries and regions in both the Global North and Global South. As a result, the number of hungry people has increased by 150 million since the outbreak of the pandemic.

While the world was still struggling with many variants of Covid-19, and full recovery is not yet in sight, the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation brought about a further deterioration in global food trade as these two countries happened to be major players in the global grain market.  Today’s food markets are heavily reliant on international food trade. Since the early 1990s, nearly a quarter of all food produced crosses international borders. The high dependency on global grain imports for the food security of many countries in the Middle East and Africa is causing a severe food crisis in many parts of the world.

FAO State of Hunger and Malnutrition Report 2022

On July 6, 2022, in the middle of multiple unresolved crises, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Program (WFP), International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) (Those three are called UN Rome-based institutions), World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) published their annual flagship report on progress toward ending hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition. The major message of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report (SOFI) was that “the world is moving in the wrong direction” to end hunger, food insecurity, and all forms of malnutrition. The SOFI 2022 report projects that nearly 670 million people, or 8% of the world’s population, will be affected by hunger in 2030, instead of the “zero hunger” target Nr. 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that were adopted by the United Nations in 2015. SOFI assesses the relevance of conflicts, including the most recent war in Ukraine, along with climate extremes and economic shocks. Additionally, for the first time, the report adds growing inequalities as major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Given the nature of the multiple crises affecting food security it should not be surprising that the overall findings of the report are alarming.  Since 2015, the proportion of people affected by hunger has remained relatively unchanged. In 2020 and 2021, this proportion increased to 9.8 % of the world population. This means that in 2021 828 million people went to bed hungry every night, while 2.3 billion people (29.3 % of the world population) were moderately or severely food insecure. The core conclusion is that 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet.  45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, and 149 million children under the age of five were stunted due to severe malnutrition. In addition, the gender gap in food insecurity continued to rise in 2021, reaching 31.9 % of women compared to 27.6 % of men.

The Path to Famine and Global Food Crisis

More dramatically, in recent years the world is facing the greatest threat of famine in multiple places since WWII. This danger has persisted throughout 2022 primarily due to global price spikes in food, fuel, and fertilizers mostly attributable to the crisis in Ukraine, especially in low-income countries and the least developed countries.  The outspoken Executive Director of the WFP, David Beasley, has issued warnings about a “catastrophic future”, which has never previously been predicted to occur in the 21st Century, a time that food production had been at an historical high. The global price spikes in food and energy are creating a perfect storm that is directly causing the world’s most vulnerable to die from hunger. 50 million people find themselves at the edge of famine, desperately waiting to be rescued by emergency food aid and assistance. Beyond severe hunger “the result will be global destabilization, starvation, and mass migration on an unprecedented scale.”

As of June 30, 2022, the global Agricultural Price Index is estimated to be 34 percent higher than in January 2021. Corn prices are 47 percent higher, and wheat prices are 42 percent higher, compared to January 2021.Although last FAO’s Global Agricultural Price Index in September indicated that there is a slight price decrease last few months, this does not mean that we are out of problem. The price of wheat, cooking oil, and fertilizers are historically high since the Ukraine war started, as the parties of this current war are the major producers and exporters of these food commodities. Ukrainian harbors in the Black Sea Region are under the belligerent control of Russia and 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat are waiting to be exported.  Moreover, economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and the US make the biggest fertilizer producer Russia no longer a source for countries dependent on fertilizer imports.

The contribution of the Black Sea region to global food security through trade should not be underestimated. The region has a significant role in global food security, especially in ensuring grain balance stability. The region, mainly Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, accounts for 29% of world grain exports and 32% of wheat exports. 

Action from International Community

Global food shortages are now subject to every international forum in the UN and the World Economic Forum. UN-related institutions, including the IMF and the World Bank, are issuing warnings to the international community of the prospect of rising ” food, fuel, and fertilizer prices” to historic highs, and extreme weather events and heat waves hinder efforts to develop alternative modes of production and to find new markets.

Since the war in Ukraine started, the international community has paid greater attention to avoiding catastrophic consequences in severely food insecure countries. The UN Secretary General and other high-level UN officials are constantly reminding world leaders to act fast and effectively to stop such a spiral of crises. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned the world about a coming “hurricane of hunger”. The potential collapse of already fragile states and the human suffering this would entail warrant immediate attention from global leaders.

In March 2022, the Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance, launched by the Secretary-General, was mandated to provide joint analysis and policy recommendations from the whole of the United Nations System. The group is periodically publishing briefs. At the same time, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted resolution 76/264, entitled “State of global food insecurity”, urging the international community to jointly support countries affected by the food security crisis.

On July 18, a high-level event held at the UN headquarters in New York, titled, “Time to Act Together:  Coordinating Policy Responses to the Global Food Crisis,” urged bold, coordinated action to tackle global food crises.

Black Sea Grain Initiative

As a result of the urgent calls to avoid hunger in several countries in the Middle East and Africa, Turkey encouraged diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine with the involvement of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez. The central idea was to establish a safe “wheat corridor in the Black Sea” to deliver urgent needs for several of the Middle East and North African countries that are dependent on importing wheat from Ukraine, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Libya. Many other countries in Africa are waiting for food aid from the WFP to survive for the wheat trade arrangements. Talks continued for a few months, with no results due to security reasons. Insurance companies were reluctant to underwrite shipments from the Black Sea. For a long time, both parties were not convinced of each other’s good faith and Russia wanted the economic embargo to be lifted. Finally, in August, the two countries signed separate agreements in Istanbul to start grain shipments from Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea, supposedly intended to reach countries throughout the world desperately waiting for vital food and fertilizer exports from Ukraine.

According to the 14th September 2022 Progress report of the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul, 136 vessels left Ukrainian ports carrying a total of three million metric tons of grains and other foodstuffs. Among them, only 27% of this amount reached low and lower-middle income countries (Egypt 8%, Iran and India 4%, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Sudan 2% each, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti 1% each, and Tunisia less than 1%); 26% went to upper middle-income countries; and 47% to high-income countries. This distribution has been widely criticized as only one-third of the shipments went directly to the lower-income countries most in need. 

Geopolitics of Food Security

The global spillover of the Ukrainian war not only spiked food and oil prices and disrupted food systems in ways additional to inflation concerns, but also created geopolitical concerns.  Suddenly, at the most recent G-7 and G-20 meetings food moved to the top of the agenda. Countries started to revise their food trade rules, changed priorities depending on the strategic importance of each food item, and reduced or banned exports. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged global leaders to halt stockpiling and export restrictions on food and to provide financial assistance to countries and people struggling with food insecurity. Some countries tried to create regional food hubs and prioritized local markets rather than relying on global food systems.  

Undoubtedly the food price spike had a more severe impact in low-income countries than in the developed world—especially in the African continent net food importer countries and some South Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh—as food and fertilizers prices quadrupled, and the median family budget spending on food in these countries rose to more than 60%. 

Bill Gates, a major philanthropist, and investor and supporter of African Union Agriculture (AGRA), invites investors to improve productivity in Africa. Although it is widely accepted that hunger is not about food availability, but economic and logistical accessibility, boosting productivity is the most shared policy response against crises by corporations and big food exporters.  This is misguided.  Overall, the recent high food commodity prices and uncertainty in the market are jeopardizing confidence in global food systems.  

Although oil prices began to decrease to preinvasion levels as demand sharply decreased, worldwide food price inflation remains high. Even in the US, inflation for food increased prices by 11.4%, the most since May of 1979.  For instance, the US consumer price index shows that the price of chicken parts and flour have each increased by close to 20%, and margarine has jumped 34%.

Relatively well-off American consumers do not pay attention to food prices as much as oil prices, as the car culture of American society is very deep and emotional. Overall food expenses are only a small part of most family budgets. However, in some parts of the country food banks are again becoming as popular as they were during the height of the pandemic. Food prices are soaring, and unpredictably extreme weather patterns are causing crop failures in the US. In Phoenix for example one food bank recently reported a 78 % increase in demand compared to the same time last year.

Impact on Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events

Besides the pandemic and war, historically high heat waves struck Europe this summer, even in the UK. In Spain and Portugal, wildfires and extreme heat waves left more than 1,000 people dead, and sharply damaged staple crops such as wheat. A sharp decline is expected to occur among major exporters including Ukraine, the US, and India.  

While the climate crisis is taking its toll in developing and developed countries alike, many countries are revising their climate change policies due to skyrocketing energy and food prices. The EU countries followed commitments of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and initiated a new “Green Deal.” However, the current energy crisis caused by the war and sanctions against Russia will make the transition to low-carbon energy systems far more challenging.

The real increase in food prices is expected to be felt later, because “there have been tremendous destruction of arable land in Ukraine”, as well as a 100% increase in fertilizer prices. There will be an additional loss of production because farmers are not able to afford optimal use of fertilizers.  Overall, the World Bank expects that food prices will continue to increase and will rise more than 20 percent in late 2022, and more likely continue to rise in 2023. The World Bank also warns the international community that the continuation of the conflict in Ukraine will plunge an additional 95 million people into extreme poverty, and 50 million into severe hunger, this year.

The IMF is reminding the international community of the 2007-08 food crisis, and advises countries to maintain open trade, support vulnerable households, ensure sufficient agricultural supply, and address financing pressures. Similarly, international financial institutions and global leaders convened an action plan on April 19 called: “Tackling Food Insecurity: the challenges and call to action.” According to a joint action plan, there are 6 priority goals: 1. Support vulnerable people; 2. Promote open trade; 3. Mitigate fertilizer shortages; 4. Support food production now; 5. Invest in climate resilient agriculture for the future; 6. Coordinate for maximum impact.

Nevertheless, in times of uncertainty and multiple crises, countries will not easily commit themselves to global solidarity. Many countries are reluctant to export foodstuffs before making sure that there is enough stock for domestic use and reserves. Also, economic sanctions bring another level of difficulty, as the Russian Federation is an important player in the food and energy sector, as well as being a major military power, having the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons after the US.

How to avoid the coming food crisis?

The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have demonstrated that broken global supply chains are difficult to restore. Food prices have reached their highest levels in more than a decade, while global inflation has had knock-on effects for developing countries that rely on food imports. High food and fuel prices have been devastating for food-insecure countries that survive only through massive infusions of humanitarian aid. The reliance on commodities such as wheat, and the fact that its production and trade are dominated by a handful of countries and corporations, exposes the systemic vulnerabilities of global food systems, which becomes especially evident at times of uncertainty and crisis.   

This alarming situation has led to global soul-searching when it comes to agricultural policies, with governments seeking alternative markets and ways to increase production at home. It turns out that market globalization in food systems had gone too far, coming with a huge price tag during these challenging times.  The global food market is still under the influence of commodity speculators, reminiscent of what happened in the 2007-08 food prices crises. This reality cannot be ignored if there exists a genuine interest in mitigating food market fluctuations. In addition, food security is framed in overly narrow terms in many international platforms, rather than being approached in a comprehensive, holistic manner.

Against this background, we must transform food systems from global to local, from concentrated power to a more equitable and dispersed model.  We must ensure the rights of the food workers, and shift production systems from being highly dependent on chemicals to an agroecology orientation. This is a tall order, and it cannot be realized anytime soon without an accompanying strong political will, even after the growth of an agricultural reform movement. This can only be realized if the world community commits itself to just and sustainable food systems that respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food, enable food sovereignty for local communities, and avoid the financialization of food markets. Otherwise, the world will be challenged by food crises, one after another.  

*Hilal Elver is a Global Distinguished Fellow at the Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy. She is the former UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food (2014-2020), and currently a member of the  High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the World Committee of Food Security (CFS).

You can find her website here.

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