Russia’s war in Ukraine and high gas prices have boosted the cost of fertilizers having a major downstream effect on the global food supply, driving many populations in parts of the world to food crises, especially countries that were already vulnerable to food shocks that rely on World Food Program donations. These problems persist even though last year’s Black Sea Grain Initiative is helping to increase food supplies around the world.
What is beyond doubt is that the Russian Federation’s ongoing war against Ukraine is causing a major upheaval in global food and energy markets, causing soaring food and fuel prices that have put millions at risk of hunger. Many families are unable to afford basic foodstuffs, despite global food prices having stabilized somewhat in recent months, they still remain at a 10-year high.
“The deterioration of global food security is caused by multiple factors with the impact of the Ukraine crisis, as well as the impact on fuel and fertilizer prices, adding further pressure,” the WFP spokesperson told NE Global.
During a plenary discussion of the EU Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on February 16, European Parliamentarian Colm Markey said the fertilizer crisis is leading to soaring food prices, calling for a long-term reduction of the dependency on synthetic fertilizers and short-term action. “We all see how food prices across Europe have increased enormously over the last number of months. And the key component to all that is the cost of imports at the farm level and the key to that is fertilizer. Two key driving factors drove up the cost of fertilizer: the lack of imports due to the war in Ukraine and the price of gas,” Markey said.
Markey slammed the European Commission for not doing enough to curb prices. “We need additional measures. We need additional funding to support the industry in the short term to remove the anti-dumping measures and to make sure that there is a supply of raw materials and a supply of fertilizer in the coming months ahead. Unless this is done, global food prices will continue to increase. We can’t allow that to happen,” the MEP added.
Russia’s role in destroying the global food supply
Before the war, Ukraine’s export revenues surged as a result of booming agricultural production and rising commodity prices. In one year, 2020 to 2021, Ukraine’s agricultural revenue went from $124 billion to $166 billion, while its GDP hit $200 billion. The share of agriculture in Ukraine’s export revenues from goods also increased from 26 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2020.
In 2021, Ukraine produces eighty-six million tons of grain in 2021 and 35.9 million tons of corn in 2019. It was the fifth-biggest grower of corn after the US, China, Brazil and Argentina, amounting to 3.1 percent of all corn produced in the world. Ukraine also accounted for 3.7 percent of all global wheat production in 2019, ranking seventh in the world after China, India, Russia, the United States, France and Canada.
Ukraine plays an outsized role in agricultural production as large countries, including China, India, the US, Indonesia and Brazil, consume much of their own production. Ukraine, however, exports most of what it produces. Prior to the Russian Federation’s invasion, 42 percent of all global sunflower-oil exports came from Ukraine, along with 16 percent of all corn exports, 8.9 percent of all wheat exports and 9.7 percent of all barley exports.
Considering Ukraine’s critical role in the global food supply chain, the Russian Navy’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has been the main contributor with regards to the food crisis. Russia has looted Ukraine’s agricultural sector and illegally exported the supplies via Crimea, the strategically important Black Sea peninsula that Moscow invaded and occupied in 2014. Russia’s Armed Forces have also intentionally destroyed Ukrainian farm equipment, grain silos and food supplies.
According to a report by the Kyiv School of Economics, Moscow’s year-long total war strategy against Ukraine has taken an immense toll on Ukraine’s agricultural sector. The Ukrainian economy is projected to contract by 45 percent and dozens of millions across the world are threatened with hunger because of the disrupted exports of grains from Ukraine and continued damage to its agri-food sector.
The Russian Federation has further aggravated this food crisis by bombing and burning agricultural storage facilities in both the south and east of Ukraine by stealing hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and exporting the supplies, on its own ships, to its close ally Syria.
The damage this has caused to Ukraine’s agriculture sector has now reached $6.6 billion.
July’s Black Sea Grain Initiative provided only a partial solution
In July 2022, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and a delegation from the UN met in Istanbul to hammer out an agreement that would create procedures for the safe export of grain from certain ports to prevent a global food crisis.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative has opened up a humanitarian maritime corridor to export food commodities from Ukrainian ports and it is a crucial part of the global response to meeting the needs of the world’s hungry.
According to the World Food Program, since the Black Sea Grain Initiative was signed in Istanbul on July 27, and the first vessel departed Odessa on August 3, the UN’s Joint Coordination Center facilitated the outbound passage of 17 million tons of food commodities as of January 12. The World Food Program has transported over 380,000 million tons of wheat from Ukrainian ports.
A dozen World Food Program-chartered vessels have sailed under the initiative in support of their operations in Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.
What has, however, hindered the full implementation of the initiative has been the actions of the Russian Federation’s navy. Since the war began, Russian combat vessels have attacked or distributed the activities of commercial ships, according to the International Maritime Organization.
Famine-like conditions in the Third World
In 2023, the world is facing a major food crisis with more than 900,000 people fighting to survive increasingly catastrophic famine conditions. This number represents an increase in the number of those living under starving conditions that is 10 times higher than five years ago; an alarmingly rapid increase that has been driven by conflict, economic shocks and soaring fertilizer prices.
The Horn of Africa is gripped by a severe drought after the failure of a fifth consecutive rainy season at the end of 2022. In Somalia alone, International aid organizations are having to reach record numbers of people with food, nutrition and medical support.
Currently, 349 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity – up from 287 million in 2021. This constitutes a staggering rise of 200 million people since pre-pandemic levels.
Funding shortfalls have already forced groups like the World Food Program to prioritize who receives assistance and who goes hungry. A major organization, including the aforementioned World Food Program, needs sustainable resources throughout the whole of 2023 to support those who are already suffering from hunger and for preventive measures to be put in place.
Conflict, economic shock & soaring fertilizer prices cause hunger crises
The link between hunger and armed conflict is complex as war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence. The conflicts then exacerbate weaknesses in food systems and supply chains.
“It is critical that these (Ukrainian) ports remain open. With 345 million people marching toward starvation, it must be renewed,” World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley wrote on February 20.
At the recently concluded Munich Security Forum, Beasley warned Moscow that shutting down Ukraine’s ports would be catastrophic, notably in Africa, where millions of people are facing famines.
“Africa is very fragile right now. Fifty million people are knocking on famine’s door … Food prices, fuel costs, debt inflation and three years of COVID … people have no more capacity to cope. If we don’t get in and get costs down, then 2024 could be the worst year we have seen in several hundred years.”
Beasley has been a forceful advocate of engaging the private sector to work with world leaders to tackle the current food crises, a message he personally delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month.
And end to the war at any cost for the Global South & Third World
What has slowly become clear over recent months is that the countries of both the Global South and the Third World – many of which are either allies who openly support Russia’s war in Ukraine, or who refuse to condemn Moscow – are steadily growing more desperate.
Key nations within this group – including India, Brazil and Indonesia, increasingly view the war in Ukraine as an issue that is of no concern to them and is ultimately between Northern Hemisphere nations that live in vastly different cultural, economic and political realms. For the developing nations of the Global South and Third World, the war needs to be resolved quickly, regardless of the result.
The idea of preserving the survival of a sovereign democratic state in Eastern Europe means little or nothing to the people of these nations. That can not be good news for Kyiv, Washington, London or Brussels.
*Editor’s Note: NE Global’s Director of Energy & Climate Policy and Security, Kostis Geropoulos; Alec Mally, the Executive Director for Global Economic Affairs & Southeast Europe; and CEO/Editor-in-Chief, Nicholas Waller, each contributed to this article.