Russia's war on Ukraine is dire for world hunger. But there are solutions
Both countries are huge suppliers of grains and other essential foods. And with widespread hunger and high food prices already, the war couldn't have come at a worse time.
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Russia's invasion of Ukraine isn't only jeopardizing the lives of Ukrainians. The war is also on track to cause a surge in severe malnutrition and even starvation around the world. That's the grim assessment of many experts on global food security. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: During Soviet times, Ukraine was often referred to as the breadbasket for Eastern Europe. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's taken on that role for the world. Joseph Glauber is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. He says Ukraine's role in global food production is already outsized. Throw in Russia's contribution and...
JOSEPH GLAUBER: These are very major suppliers, and to have them out of the world market means that world prices will rise.
AIZENMAN: Glauber and some colleagues recently did an analysis showing that the various agricultural products that Ukraine and Russia export account for 12% of the calories traded in the world. Wheat is a big driver. Ukraine provides 10% of the world's supply. Add in Russia, and that jumps to 30%. But there are plenty of other products at issue, as well.
GLAUBER: Roughly around two-thirds of sunflower seed oil...
AIZENMAN: Used in cooking.
GLAUBER: ...Feed grains - so things like corn and barley.
AIZENMAN: For feeding the cattle and other livestock. There's also fertilizer, for which Russia, in particular, is a very important source.
GLAUBER: The good news is that crops that were harvested in Ukraine last fall - a lot of that has moved. So about 70% of the wheat has already been sold.
AIZENMAN: But that still leaves a large chunk awaiting transport, along with 45% of the corn crop.
GLAUBER: And now those ports are shut. And so the question is, you know, will that grain make it to the market?
AIZENMAN: And he says an even more crucial test will come this April, when planting should start for corn, barley and sunflower seeds, and then in the summer, when the next wheat harvest begins.
GLAUBER: Obviously, a lot of it depends on what the duration of this conflict is.
AIZENMAN: In the case of Russia, the key question will be how much financial sanctions mess with its supply chains for producing and exporting commodities. In other words, even if Russia can get its products out, they'll likely be more expensive. All these potential price hikes are alarming to Arif Husain. He's chief economist at the United Nations World Food Programme.
ARIF HUSAIN: Frankly, I mean, I am extremely worried because, you know, the timing of this unnecessary, unwarranted, unjustified war couldn't have been worse.
AIZENMAN: Droughts in North and South America, typhoons in Malaysia have all driven food prices to their highest levels since the late 2000s, when people were so desperate they took to the streets, particularly in the Middle East. This time, people's ability to absorb the price hikes is also wearing thin.
HUSAIN: I think probably the worst thing is that this is coming during the time of COVID. A lot of people in many parts of the world have lost their jobs. So you're getting squeezed from both sides.
AIZENMAN: Already, many people are going hungry, with 276 million worldwide currently in the midst of a hunger crisis. Tens of millions of them are one step away from famine.
HUSAIN: If we cannot assist them, they will die - that simple.
AIZENMAN: How many more people will the war in Ukraine push into those ranks? Husain says he's most concerned about people in countries that are heavily dependent on exports and that are already struggling - Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia. He adds that there are 38 countries where people currently face emergency levels of hunger.
HUSAIN: That's a big list.
AIZENMAN: Yet Husain also stresses that if countries that do have resources step up with enough food aid, the human toll of all this can be avoided. There will still be enough food, he says. It'll just cost more.
Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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