• Experts are warning about the impact the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have on global food security.
  • Between 720 million and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020, around one in 10, according to UN estimates.
  • COVID-19, climate change and conflict are among the main drivers of global food insecurity.

“Conflict and hunger are closely intertwined – when one escalates, the other usually follows. As in any crisis, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are hardest hit, and in our globalized world, the impact of this conflict will reverberate across continents.”

These are the words of Gilbert Houngbo, former Prime Minister of Togo now President of the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, experts including Houngbo are warning about the impact of the Russian invasion on global food security.

IFAD is “very concerned” that an extended conflict in Ukraine could limit the world's supply of staple crops such as wheat, corn and sunflower oil, resulting in skyrocketing food prices and hunger, he adds.

“This could jeopardize global food security and heighten geopolitical tensions.”

What is the current state of global food security?

Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have already taken a considerable toll on global food systems – and the ability of the world to feed its 7.9 billion people.

Ending hunger is the second of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030.

In the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report – a collaboration between five UN agencies – the authors recognize that achieving this goal has become more challenging.

Between 720 million and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020, around one in 10, according to UN estimates – and roughly 70 million to 161 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019.

Chart showing number of undernourished people in the world.
How the number of malnourished people has risen during the pandemic.
Image: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Some regions are more affected than others. About one in five people in Africa (21%) faced hunger in 2020 – more than double the proportion of any other region and a 3 percentage point increase in one year, the report says.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one in 10 people faced hunger in 2020.

Malnutrition affects how children grow. In 2020, about 22% of under-fives – or just over 149 million – suffered from stunting, and nearly three-quarters of children with such impaired growth lived in just two regions: Central and Southern Asia (37%) and sub-Saharan Africa (37%).

What impact will the Ukraine invasion have on global food security?

Ukraine plays a major role in the global food system. Together with Russia, the two countries account for a combined 12% of the food calories traded in the world, says IFAD.

Almost half (40%) of Ukraine’s wheat and corn exports go to the Middle East and Africa, which are already grappling with hunger issues, and where further food shortages or price increases could stoke social unrest.

Egypt is the world’s biggest buyer of wheat and imports most of this from Ukraine and Russia. It uses the grain to make subsidized bread, on which many families rely, according to The Economist.

“The continuation of this conflict, already a tragedy for those directly involved, will be catastrophic for the entire world, and particularly those that are already struggling to feed their families,” says Houngbo.

“IFAD is committed to continue its work to increase the food self-sufficiency and resilience of the world's poorest countries, but in the short term it will be difficult to mitigate the global impacts of this crisis. Stopping the conflict now is the only solution.”

Global food prices rose by over 20% in February compared with a year earlier, taking them to record levels, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

World Economic Forum partner Yara International supports farmers in 150 countries to sustainably improve yields and fight hunger.

President and CEO Svein Tore Holsether warns that with the key season approaching to move fertilizer stocks around the northern hemisphere, the impact of the invasion coming on top of rising gas prices means global food security has already reached crisis levels.

He told the BBC: “Half the world's population gets food as a result of fertilizers ... and if that's removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%.

“For me, it's not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it's how large the crisis will be."

What are the other main challenges threatening global food security?

The UN agencies’ report outlines the major drivers of the recent rise in hunger and food insecurity:

  • Conflict.
  • Climate variability and extremes.
  • Economic slowdowns and downturns (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic).

“In addition, millions of people around the world suffer from food insecurity and different forms of malnutrition because they cannot afford the cost of healthy diets,” says the report, noting that the impact of these drivers is heightened by pre-existing levels of inequality – and they are often interconnected.

Conflict, for example, “negatively affects almost every aspect of a food system, from production, harvesting, processing and transport to input supply, financing, marketing and consumption.

“Direct impacts can include the destruction of agricultural and livelihood assets and can severely disrupt and restrict trade and movements of goods and services, with a negative effect on the availability and prices of food, including nutritious foods.”

How can we end world hunger and food insecurity?

The UN agencies’ report, published before the invasion of Ukraine, recommends six ways to transform food systems to address these challenges and “ensure access to affordable healthy diets for all, sustainably and inclusively”.

1. Integrating humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict-affected areas.

2. Scaling up climate resilience across food systems.

3. Strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity.

4. Intervening along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods.

5. Tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive.

6. Strengthening food environments and changing consumer behaviour to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment.

The World Economic Forum, the Food Action Alliance and partners are holding a virtual meeting, ”Bold Actions for Food – Regional and Country Flagships”, to drive action on food systems change.

In the opening plenary, leaders will discuss how to raise ambitions and scale up leadership action this year towards COP27, and explore strategies for realizing shared goals by 2030.

Key topics to be addressed include the global outlook for 2022; rising food insecurity and market volatility; enabling countries to take on integrated transitions across food, nature and health; and unlocking policy, innovation and finance levers to scale solutions.