Russia-Ukraine Conflict: How Russia is Creating a Global Food Crisis

People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022, 10 days after Russia launched a military in vasion on Ukraine. (Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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Russia Bombs Odessa: Global Food System at Risk

A day after signing the much-anticipated grain export deal with Ukraine to allow for the resumption of grain exports, the vital Ukrainian port in the Southern part of the country.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, in total violation of international law and accepted standards of human decency, there have been many cases of Russian missiles hitting Ukrainian facilities. Each of these attacks has had a severe impact on the everyday economic activities in Ukraine.

However, the consequences of Russia’s attack on Odessa will be felt worldwide. It will potentially break the global food system completely.

It is now increasingly clear that Russia initially refused to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative after its expiry in March to frustrate the exportation of grain and oilseed from Ukraine.

Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 may have caused fears of a global food crisis. Still, even before COVID- 19 pandemic disrupted the global supply chain, many countries faced severe food insecurity.

The natural gas and fertilizers that Europe, for instance, consumes come majorly from Russia and partly from Belarus, generally known as the Black Sea region. Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis disrupted normal activities there, food prices have increased dramatically, leaving widespread suffering, hunger, and grinding poverty on its trail.

Black Sea Conflict: Global Food Trade in Jeopardy

The nasty war that has now claimed more than 10,000 civilian lives affected the entire global food system through effects on trade in cereals and vegetable oils, interruptions to fertilizer exports, and rising energy prices.

Early in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that prolonged disruption of exports from Ukraine and Russia could increase the number of undernourished people by 8 to 13 million in 2022.

For over 30 years, the Black Sea region has emerged as a significant global supplier of grains and oilseeds, including vegetable oils. In the early 1990s, following the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the region was a net importer of grain.

Today, Russia and Ukraine’s exports account for about 12 percent of total calories traded globally, and the two countries are among the top five global exporters of many important cereals and oilseeds, including wheat, barley, sunflower seeds, and maize. Ukraine is also an essential source of sunflower seed oil, supplying about 50 percent of the global market.

The attack on Odessa port will immediately impact the global food system, especially grains since most wheat and barley crops are harvested in the summer and exported during the fall. Most wheat, barley, and sunflower seed exports are primarily completed by February. Ukraine exports most of these commodities through Odessa and other western ports on the Black Sea.

Russia’s military operations in Ukraine have had short-and, long-term consequences for the capacity to move Ukraine’s crop production within and beyond its borders, seeing as port facilities and railroads have been damaged through terrestrial and aerial operations and, in some cases, by cyber-attacks targeting various infrastructures and their management.

Russia and Ukraine play a crucial role in world food markets, so any disruption in the Black Sea region has global implications. In recent decades, the Black Sea region has become a significant supplier of grains, oilseeds, and vegetable oil.

Before the conflict, Russia and Ukraine accounted for at least 12 percent of total calories traded worldwide and 30 percent of global wheat and barley exports. They were among the top five global wheat, barley, sunflower seeds, and maize exporters.

In addition, Ukraine supplied about half of the global market for sunflower oil. Many European countries rely heavily on Ukraine’s feed products, which are vital in diets directly and indirectly.

The disruption of Ukraine’s exports, as a direct result of the conflict, and of Russia’s exports, as an indirect result of international sanctions and subsequent increases in global food prices, has contributed to current food insecurity in many parts of the world.

Apart from the food products, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has also affected essential inputs to the food system. Russia is a significant source of natural gas, exporting about 20 percent of globally traded natural gas and, before the war, supplying some 40 percent of the European Union’s imports.

Along with its ally Belarus, Russia remains an essential exporter of potash, phosphate, and nitrogenous fertilizers, for which natural gas is a critical input. Ukraine and many other countries heavily depend on these fertilizer supplies, including many in Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

That said, the impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war and related food price volatility vary by country and region, as do the appropriate responses to ensure food security for their populations. The conflict has affected the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) most directly.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: MENA & Africa Face Looming Food Crisis

The Middle East and North Africa region is the largest importer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat and a significant importer of other grains and vegetable oil from Ukraine. Egypt, for example, is a substantial consumer of wheat and heavily subsidizes bread for its consumers. The country imports 62 percent of its supply, primarily from Russia and Ukraine, making it the world’s largest wheat importer.

Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa face slow economic recovery and high food prices post-COVID-19, protracted war or civil strife, economic collapse, and long-term climate challenges. This is the case for Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, and other countries where the food and fuel price crisis are an added problem in an already bad situation.

The indirect impacts of Russia’s attack on Odessa port will be significant in many vulnerable countries, especially in Africa south of the Sahara, where poverty and malnutrition rates are generally high, and governments have limited means.

While the rising global food price increase may negatively impact local food sources in some parts of Africa, the overall rise in prices for imported foods and many consumer goods resulting from fuel price increases will severely affect poor consumers. For example, in Malawi, maize accounts for 36 percent of food purchases by people experiencing poverty, even though many produce some of the maize they eat.

Any increase in the price of maize will limit people’s ability to feed themselves. At the same time, the rise in fertilizer prices will cut farmers’ profits and lead many to limit fertilizer use, thus reducing production and food availability.

The making of potentially the most significant food crisis in recent history is on, thanks to Russia’s increasing aggression against Ukraine.

Read more political insights here.

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