Sara Menker and Rajiv Shah: Putin’s war has started a global food crisis

Because Russia and Ukraine are both major food exporters, the human toll will stretch far beyond Ukraine’s borders.

(Sara Chodosh | The New York Times) Drought severity is measured by the Gro Drought Index, which is derived from satellite data and includes 46 variables (such as precipitation, temperature and soil moisture). The index also accounts for differences in what drought conditions look like in different parts of the world. Source: Gro Intelligence

The humanitarian disaster produced by Russia’s needless invasion of Ukraine shocks the conscience: 10 million Ukrainians displaced and innumerable Ukrainians killed. But because Ukraine and Russia are both major food exporters, the human toll will grow much larger, far from Ukraine’s borders.

As Ukraine’s farms have turned into battlefields, uncertainty around the country’s agricultural exports, as well as Russia’s, has created a global food emergency by driving up the prices of wheat, corn, soybeans, fertilizers and sunflower oil.

The prices of commodities like wheat and corn are global, but their shocks are inequitable. Wealthier countries and people can absorb sharp price increases. Meanwhile, people in poorer countries, like Sudan and Afghanistan, are finding it far more expensive to eat. In Sudan, rising wheat prices have caused the price of bread to roughly double. Because Ukraine and Russia exported livestock feed and fertilizer before the war, the cost and difficulty of producing food will increase in the months and years ahead.

By tracking price increases of the foods that each nation imports, along with modeling countries’ import needs, we can estimate which countries are most likely to struggle to fill the gap left by domestic shortfalls and feed their people over the coming months. In addition to Sudan and Afghanistan, Egypt is in for a difficult year. The country is the world’s largest importer of wheat, which is 33 percent more expensive than it was at the end of last year.

Unfortunately, many of these countries are facing other crises. Social safety nets have been worn thin by Covid-19. Oil prices remain high. And over half of low-income countries are in or at high risk of debt distress as interest rates rise, limiting their ability to borrow money to pay for food.

Before the war, roughly 811 million people around the world did not have enough to eat. That number could increase tremendously this hunger season, the time between spring planting and fall harvest when food often runs out.

Climate change will compound these risks. In key agricultural regions, drought conditions are worse today than they’ve been in decades.

The war’s many implications are distressing. Food crises often lead to social unrest, conflict, failed governments and mass migrations. For example, some researchers point to rising food prices as a driver of the Arab Spring upheavals in 2011.

But history, especially food price crises around 2008 and 2010, reminds us that by using the latest data and science, the world can mount a comprehensive response to hunger.

First, nations and institutions must move quickly to save lives. That starts with fully funding the World Food Program and leveraging existing food reserves to help countries in distress. The United Nations, the World Trade Organization and others must also work with countries to prevent food export bans, which are already undermining the global food supply.

Second, the Group of 7 and China must lead a new round of emergency relief from official debt to enable vulnerable countries to respond to hunger. Debt relief was a boon to development in the early 2000s and could free up resources today. Multilateral financing institutions must also take aggressive action, using emergency instruments like a reallocation of International Monetary Fund special drawing rights, which can augment countries’ official currency reserves.

Third, over the long term, the world must help make vulnerable economies more food secure. The U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, established in 2010 with bipartisan support, has helped transform agriculture in Africa and elsewhere. New investments in similar food systems’ transformation, especially in regenerative agriculture, could make nations more resilient to energy, climate, health and geopolitical shocks.

With a comprehensive strategy, the world can limit the scope of the war’s hunger emergency. At a time of conflict and climate change, it will also begin the long-overdue process of making a more stable, sustainable global food system that can nourish everyone in a crisis-laden era.

Sara Menker is the founder of Gro Intelligence, an artificial-intelligence company that forecasts global agricultural markets and the impacts of climate change. Rajiv Shah is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.