War in Ukraine sparks concerns over worldwide food shortages

Three weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the war is starting to have devastating effects not only on the ground, but in many countries that rely on Ukraine’s important wheat production. The United Nations has warned of a “hunger hurricane”, which is already starting to be felt in Northern Africa. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.

On March 14, the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a stark warning about the wider threats of the war in Ukraine: world hunger. “We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system,” he said.

The comment echoed a similar concern voiced by David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, just a few days earlier: “The bullets and bombs in Ukraine could take the global hunger crisis to catastrophic levels. Supply chains and food prices will be dramatically impacted,” he said.

Ukraine, along with southwestern Russia, has long been known as “Europe’s breadbasket” thanks to the region’s rich dark soil, chernozem, among the most fertile in the world. The region accounts “for about 15 percent of the world’s wheat production, and nearly 30 percent of world exports,” Sébastien Abis, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and director for the Deemeter Club think tank, which specialises in global agricultural issues, told FRANCE 24.

“But it’s not just wheat,” Abis said, “the two countries account for 80 percent of the world’s sunflower oil production, and Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest exporter of maize.”

As the fighting in Ukraine continues and the Russian offensive intensifies along the Black Sea coastline, these important crop producers have now been cut off from the world. “Nothing is leaving the Ukrainian ports anymore,” Abis explained, “and it is impossible to know what the country will be able to produce and harvest in the coming months”.

The conflict has already had dramatic consequences for Ukrainians “who are struggling to find food amid the bullets”, he said. But it is also causing concerns for the many countries that depend on Ukrainian wheat and are increasingly worried they will soon be unable to feed their people.

Catastrophic shortages

Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have already started to feel the sting of the wheat-shortage. “The Maghreb countries depend heavily on Ukrainian wheat,” Abis said. “And this year, even more so because they have suffered a major drought which has increased their needs for foreign imports.” For Egypt, it’s catastrophic. “Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat and gets 60 percent of its imports from Russia and 40 percent from Ukraine.”

Already in the very first days of the Russian invasion “the agricultural markets [in the region] overreacted and anticipated wheat supply problems, leading to a surge in prices,” Abis explained, noting the price for a tonne of wheat was now at the historic level of €400. Before the conflict it cost €280 and in the spring of 2020, €150.

In Tunisia, where there is currently a financial crisis and an inflation rate of over 6 percent, the population has been living with a shortage of semolina and flour, subsidised by the government. Faced with rising prices, many Tunisians struggle to survive without these subsidised products, which are increasingly difficult to come by. Now they can often only be found in the black market, where they are sold at steep prices.

In Egypt, the rising wheat prices have pushed up overall bread costs.

“The government has tried to reassure the people by explaining that it has sufficient stocks to last several months, and which will be replenished with the upcoming domestic spring harvest,” Abis said. Since the start of the Russian offensive, Egypt has tried to free itself from its Ukrainian wheat dependence by launching a call for tenders with new potential wheat suppliers. “But nothing came of it, the prices were too high,” the researcher explained. “It’s a vicious circle: Even if the country can afford to buy wheat at a higher price, this will affect people’s purchasing power.”

Algeria, meanwhile, is trying to fend off the crisis by implementing preventative measures: The government has banned the export of semolina, pasta and other wheat products to safeguard its raw material stocks. “But Algiers has an advantage: They export oil, the price of which is reaching record highs. This gives them the capacity to buy wheat, even with rising prices,” Abis said.

‘Unsustainable’ prices for developing countries

North Africa is not the only region affected by the wheat shortage. Indonesia is the world’s second largest buyer of Ukrainian wheat, and Pakistan, Turkey, and several countries in Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa depend on it as well. 

“I am particularly concerned about certain West African countries where cereal stocks are very low, especially in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal,” Abis said. “For these countries, the current prices are unsustainable.”

On Wednesday, the UN called for $4.3 billion in funds to help more than 17 million people in Yemen, saying the war in Ukraine could make the situation in the country – which has been plagued by war since 2014 – even worse. According to the UN, some 161,000 people in Yemen are likely to experience “catastrophic – or famine-like – levels of hunger” in the second half of this year.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that an additional 8-13 million people worldwide face undernourishment if food exports from Ukraine and Russia are stopped permanently.

“We must not forget that this new crisis comes on top of the already very difficult context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already caused historic inflation and undermined food security in many countries,” Abis said.

Wheat, a geopolitical issue

Faced with this threat, and the possibility of new “hunger riots” which broke out in several countries in 2008 over soaring grain prices, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie has called on the European Union to cover for the lost Ukraine wheat. “Europe must produce more,” he said in an interview with French radio station France Inter on Tuesday, adding it must “take on the mission of providing sustenance”.

“What the minister announced is certainly the most pragmatic position to take, but we are hardly going to be able to increase production at the snap of a finger between now and this summer,” Abis said. “We need to give producers the means and resources to do it, and we need to review the regulations for uncultivated land… In the past few years, Europe has adopted a policy to ‘produce better’. Producing more would mean revising the whole European agricultural policy.”

“Wheat, more than ever, is becoming a geopolitical issue,” he said. “Because behind all this, there is also the question of how countries will position themselves in relation to the Russian market. Will Russian grain exports continue? Considering the needs of certain countries, Moscow will most certainly continue to play an important role on the international scene.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.


© Studio graphique France Médias Monde

Source: France24

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