How the War Has Led to a “New High” in World Hunger

a man holds grains of wheat

Russia and Ukraine account for about a third of the world’s wheat exports, but the war is disrupting trade and may lead to a global food crisis. (Getty Images)

The invasion, the pandemic, and climate change have all contributed to a global food crisis.

Putin’s brutal war has already claimed thousands of lives in Ukraine — but it could devastate many more globally. The invasion is contributing to a food shortage that has led to a “new high” in world hunger, the U.N. warns. Here’s a breakdown of the situation:

How the war is threatening the world’s food supply

Russia and Ukraine supply nearly a third of globally traded wheat and barley, 15 percent of the maize, and 75 percent of the sunflower oil, the Economist reports. Exports from Ukraine account for enough calories to feed 400 million people, and Russia is estimated to supply as much as a third of wheat imports for the Middle East and Africa. But the war has disrupted the movement of goods out of both countries, and other nations might not step up to cover the shortfall. Since the conflict began, 23 countries have restricted their food exports and about one-fifth of all fertilizer exports, per the Economist

The soaring cost of fertilizer, which Russia has threatened to stop exporting, is another major concern. If farmers cut back on the product it could make the food shortage worse — and could affect the production of other crops, like rice, which would impact billion of people in Asia and the Americas, the U.N. said last week.

The role climate change plays

2022 was already shaping up to be a bad year for crops. Because of a late rainy season, the yield in China (the world’s largest wheat producer) could be its worst ever. The record heat in India (the second largest wheat producer) is expected to hurt its output, and dry conditions in other parts of the world could threaten crops there too. 

Wheat as a weapon

“We will only be supplying goods and agriculture products to our friends,” former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said in April.

By threatening to ban exports of the staple along with oil and gas, Russia is wielding wheat as a weapon, Annia Ciezadlo writes for the Washington Post. The country has risen to become the world’s largest wheat exporter, and experts warned that Russia may use its position to gain a political advantage — even if it means starving its enemies. 

What does it mean for world hunger?

Food prices were already high because of the pandemic, but the war has made things worse. This may push “tens of millions” into food insecurity and create a crisis of “mass hunger and famine” that could last for years, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said. 

Egypt’s finance minister warned that “millions” could die globally because of the shortage. Egypt is the world’s biggest wheat importer, getting most of the crop from Russia and Ukraine. According to the Financial Times, the country has enough wheat reserves to last for four months and is scrambling to find new import sources.

What can be done to end the food crisis? 

Exporting the 25 million tons of corn and wheat now trapped in Ukraine would provide immediate relief, per the Economist. But that would mean Russia would need to allow Ukrainian shipping and Ukraine would need to de-mine its waters to allow for naval transport, which seems unlikely at the moment. 

But other nations can step up too by keeping trade open. Indonesia, a leading producer of palm oil, recently ended its temporary ban on exports. And Europe can assist Ukraine in shipping a portion of its grain by train to northern ports. 

“Our only chance of lifting millions of people out of hunger is to act together, urgently and with solidarity,” Guterres said.