The War in Ukraine Is Escalating the Global Food Crisis, and Now Is the Time to Act

The Feinstein International Center’s Dan Maxwell describes who is suffering, how the war makes it worse, and how governments can help

News about global hunger levels is grim. “[E]conomists, aid organizations, and government officials are warning of…an increase in world hunger,” reported The New York Times in late March. “There is almost certainly not going to be enough food to feed the world this year,” The Washington Post stated. There’s “a deepening crisis both inside Ukraine and for fragile economies around the world already reeling from climate disasters and COVID-19,” according to Politico.

There is indeed cause for serious concern, says Tufts expert Dan Maxwell. “Before the war in Ukraine, a number of countries—heavily dependent on imported food—were already facing an acute food security crisis,” he notes. “For example, Somalia imports 90 percent of its staple grains. Sudan imports grain. Yemen is heavily dependent on grain imports. Many of these countries—and others—were already in crisis and sourcing imports directly from either Russia or Ukraine.”

Maxwell, Henry J. Leir Professor in Food Security at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is research director at the Feinstein International Center, where he focuses his research on famine and acute humanitarian crises. He is also co-author of Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures. He explains that the war ended exports from Ukraine and disrupted the supply from Russia—and it’s not yet clear whether or how those disruptions will worsen.

Tufts Now checked in with Maxwell about the scale of the crisis, the factors contributing to it, and the policies and actions that might help address it.

How has the war in Ukraine increased levels of global food insecurity and worsened conditions in places that were already troubled?

For food-importing countries that were already facing crisis, three things have happened at once. First, the supply lines have been drastically affected. Second, market prices were already at near-record highs at the beginning of 2022 and they've since jumped substantially higher. The price of wheat went up almost 58 percent at the beginning of the war. It’s dropped back down a bit, but, on the whole, as of mid-April, the average food basket price—an amalgamated measure used by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to assess the cost of basic food commodities—has jumped 13 percent since the beginning of the war.

Third, the price of energy has gone up. That means that the cost of transporting exports from places that can serve as alternative sources for wheat—the United States, Canada, Argentina, or Australia—has increased. It’s much more expensive to get food from those places to the countries suffering most, in and around the Horn of Africa, than to ship it across the Black Sea to the Red Sea (as was the case for the pre-war supply line).

Countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, parts of the Sahel, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other places in the Horn of Africa are in chronic crisis partly because of what people call “the three C’s”: conflict, climate change, and COVID.

Dan Maxwell, Henry J. Leir Professor in Food Security and Feinstein International Center Research Director

Dan Maxwell

Dan Maxwell

What places have been hardest hit by food insecurity, and why are the war’s effects particularly catastrophic for the people there?

Of course, Ukraine is a primary concern, as it should be. But some countries in Africa and the Middle East already were facing a crisis, and the supply issues put them at even greater risk of severe food and nutrition insecurity, if not famine.

Countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, parts of the Sahel, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other places in the Horn of Africa are in chronic crisis partly because of what people call “the three C’s”: conflict, climate change, and COVID.

Some of the places at greatest risk are the ones struggling with conflicts, such as the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Afghanistan worsened significantly at the end of the war with the U.S. pullout, the cutoff of aid, and the Taliban’s taking over the country.

In addition, there have been three bad agricultural seasons in a row in the Horn of Africa, and we’re now in the midst of a fourth. This is unprecedented. Somalia, southern and eastern Ethiopia, much of northern and eastern Kenya, and Djibouti have seen some rainfall, but it’s been late and erratic, and less than average. To put it in perspective, the 2011 famine in Somalia was triggered by just two bad seasons.

And, in some of the most food-insecure places, COVID has greatly worsened the crises. Although people in many of the places we’re talking about seem less vulnerable to COVID for some reason than people in, say, the United States, Latin America, or Europe, COVID had effects beyond health. For example, it disrupted markets and cut off remittance flows from diaspora populations who were working abroad and sending money back to their families.

There’s also just the region’s poverty, which contributes to the crisis. Southern Madagascar, for example, has been one of the most extreme places in terms of its suffering, and, while climactic factors have contributed to that, some of the problem comes down to the chronic poverty of the people there.

On the whole, what’s at stake?

Many people’s lives. Right now, in the Horn of Africa alone, there are nearly 30 million people in need of urgent food assistance. That’s twice the number of people who had similar need in 2011, when the famine in Somalia was happening. The World Food Programme recently estimated that an additional 33 million will experience acute food insecurity by the middle of the year (PDF) if the war in Ukraine is not resolved quickly—and it hasn’t been—and 47 million if the conflict is protracted.

Is there any hope, and what actions would help?

There’s always hope. In the past, governments have waited until it is formally determined that a famine is happening before stepping up with additional funding; unfortunately, that’s too late. But right now, there’s still time for governments around the world to provide funds to help head off the worst of the crisis and for aid agencies to prioritize assistance to the most vulnerable.

We can also take political action and enact market interventions. For example, the governments of stable countries can avoid putting export bans on domestic production. Those bans are something we saw in both 2011 and 2017, the last couple times there was a severe food crisis. Putting export bans on food crops makes the global markets more difficult—and doesn’t necessarily protect consumers, because other countries retaliate with tariffs. Unfortunately, at least one ban has already been enacted: Indonesia banned the export of palm oil.

The biggest impact would come from ending the war in Ukraine, and more localized conflict elsewhere in the world, such as in the affected countries. If governments and armed groups in conflict—as well as the UN and major donor governments—would put an emphasis on resolving conflicts and providing humanitarian assistance, that would make a huge difference.

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