Security alert: how will Ukraine affect our food?

Food supply chains already in flux in the wake of COVID-19 are under new pressure from the Ukraine war, with potentially dire consequences for global stability.

Wheat, barley and fertiliser prices are skyrocketing by up to 40 percent in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the heavy sanctions levied on Russia.

“This could cause an escalation of hunger and poverty with dire implications for global stability, says Gilbert F. Houngbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency.

The conflict-driven price hikes come on top of food prices driven to 10-year highs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic progress toward reducing hunger has been set back, an additional 100 million people going hungry in its wake.

Analysis by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) found that the ripple effects of the Ukrainian conflict were being felt by food-insecure people thousands of kilometres away.

The report found that in Somalia, where electricity and transport cost hikes have disproportionately affected poor farmers and pastoralists who rely on diesel-engines for their irrigation agriculture. In Egypt, prices of wheat and sunflower oil escalated dramatically, because the country relies on Russia and Ukraine for 85% of its wheat supply and 73% of its sunflower oil.

“Since 2014 Russia has been a central player in the international food market, ranking first or second in wheat exports every year,” notes Stephen Wegren, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, Texas Us. “The war in Ukraine will change its status as an emerging food superpower.”

Global hunger already stretched by pandemic

Access to adequate food is a human right recognised under international law, but in developing and developed economies, 768 million people faced hunger in 2020. Of these, 418 million live in Asia, 282 million live in Africa and 60 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020.

In the last two years, the number of food insecure people more than doubled from 135 million to 283 million. Food insecurity ranges from people eating minimally adequate diets but having to make significant changes to support non-food needs, to famine where acute malnutrition and disease levels are high.

Around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, in part due to lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global food security – 30 million more people than if the pandemic had not occurred.

The majority (60%) of people affected by hunger live in conflict zones, with conflict the main driver in 8 out of 10 of the worst hunger crises.

The Russian Federation and Ukraine are responsible for 29 percent of the global wheat trade, and many countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Armenia are all highly dependent on wheat imports from these markets.

Some countries including Indonesia, Argentina, Egypt and Morocco have put in place trade restrictions to protect their own supplies of food in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

What does this mean for Australia?

Even in Australia, considered a relatively food-secure nation, the pressure is being felt.

According to Rebecca Lindberg, an expert in food security at Deakin University, an estimated 13 percent of households experience food insecurity in Australia. In 2017–19, seven percent of households in high-income countries were estimated to be food insecure, and this figure is likely to have doubled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our food systems in Australia are sensitive to global and climate shocks, particularly because packaged and unhealthy foods make up a substantial portion of the diets of Australians,” note Lindberg. “And much of our diets are not local, but instead made up of national or international products.” 

So our food security was already hit by the Pandemic, which hammered international exports.

“The pandemic triggered increased levels of food insecurity,” Lindberg says. Estimates suggest one in six Victorians faced food insecurity during lockdown, up from one in 11 pre-pandemic. “Food charities were overwhelmed with people wanting food parcels and meals for children at home, plus the loss of employment for bread winners.”

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