Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The war in Ukraine is pushing countries short on food to famine

A wheat field in East Ukraine.

With blocked ports and exports limits from both Russia and Ukraine, countries that rely on them for staple foods are at a loss. Image: Unsplash/Polina Rytova

Clarisa Diaz
Multimedia Reporter, Quartz
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and internal conflicts are all giving rise to global hunger and now the war in Ukraine is exacerbating the problem.
  • With blocked ports and trade routes cut off, countries such as Lebanon are left without many staple foods.
  • This is raising global food prices and insecurity further, as well as increasing the number of undernourished people around the world.

The UN is predicting a “hurricane of hunger” in the world’s least developed countries as the war in Ukraine continues to crimp supplies of everything from fertilizer to cooking oil. In April, the situation worsened with the UN claiming that the war is exacerbating famine in the global south, a message echoed at the World Economic Forum last month.

Hunger is on the rise globally for many reasons, including climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and internal conflicts. But with blocked ports and exports limits from both Russia and Ukraine, countries that rely on them for staple foods are at a loss. Fertilizer and fuel shortages are also making it difficult to produce crops like wheat, corn, sunflower, and safflower, complicating a critical planting season that starts in April in Ukraine. The lack of ability to plant this year could lead to fewer crops and an even worse outlook for food security.

Russia and Ukraine supply 30% of the world’s wheat. Lebanon in particular relies on Ukraine for over 60% of its wheat, as the country lost its national wheat silos in the 2020 port explosion in Beruit. According to the UN, since the war in Ukraine started, Lebanon has not been able to secure alternative imports from other trade partners, and authorities there expect a food security crisis as a result.

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

Which countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for wheat?

Russia and Ukraine mostly supplied wheat (pdf) to countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but their crops also traveled as far as Nicaragua.

A chart showing countries dependent on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine in 2021
Countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are particularly dependent on wheat imports. Image: Quartz, with data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Wheat prices continue to rise

As supplies dwindle, prices for staple foods are reaching record heights. Global prices of cereals including wheat, barley, and other grains are 37% higher than they were a decade ago, and 89% higher since before the pandemic began.

A chart showing the global price increase of cereals since September 2019 at 89%
Cereal has seen a global price increase of 89% since September 2019. Image: Quartz, with data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

The undernourished population is growing

Meanwhile, the number of undernourished people in the world has increased. In 2020, around 768 million people were undernourished, up from 650 million in 2019. Around 282 million were undernourished in Africa alone. The UN estimates that a third of the global population faces moderate to severe food insecurity, with 2.37 billion people without access to adequate food in 2020.

Have you read?
  • 10 ways companies can help tackle the global food crisis
A chart showing how the number of undernourished people in the world rose from 650 million in 2019 to 768 million by 2020.
The number of undernourished people in the world rose drastically during 2019 and continues to rise. Image: Quartz, with data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Shortly after the war broke out, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) put together a rapid response plan (pdf) until the end of the year to help farmers on the ground in Ukraine. It aims to support crop production, and bolster food availability and access. FAO’s approach, according to the report, is to ensure food security for vulnerable populations by investing in the agricultural livelihoods of farmers. It’s a difficult task given the conflict on the ground, including the plundering of Ukraine’s grain by Russia.

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