The Ukraine War at One Year: Resilient Food Systems Can't Wait Any Longer
This article was originally published by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), where WRI is a secretariat, founding member and core partner.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second year on Friday, its ripple effects on hunger continue to reverberate globally, with communities and farmers far beyond the country’s borders weathering the high costs of supply chain disruptions, export blockades and soaring food, fuel and fertilizer prices. Among the most acutely affected are the 25 African countries that rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least one third of their wheat, many of which are still reeling from COVID-19, and caught in the crossfires of surging temperatures, conflict and debt.
With no end to the conflict in sight, scaling support for the most vulnerable remains an urgent priority. In March 2022, three weeks after the fighting began, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on the international community to “do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and complete meltdown of the global food system”. With 349 million people across 79 countries facing acute food insecurity in early 2023, that plea is even more pertinent today – particularly so for climate-vulnerable and import-dependent regions like East Africa, where the war’s arrival amid a five-season long drought has sparked a twofold increase in fertilizer prices and a 7.2 million tonne decline in cereal production. To prevent further humanitarian catastrophes, wealthy nations must step up their pledges, drawing down on all resources, both public and private, to scale social safety nets for the poor, and financial and technical assistance for farmers.
While the financial burden of the international humanitarian response lies with the rich, it is the moral responsibility of all countries to accelerate the delivery of lifesaving food and social security assistance to the hardest hit by maintaining open flows of trade and data transparency around their strategic reserves. The World Trade Organization estimates that food prices rose by 1.1 percent for every 1 percent increase in export restrictions during the food crisis, and failure to take that learning forward here would be a missed opportunity. Fortunately, the knee jerk towards protectionism we saw early in the war is easing, but in the absence of robust international mandates that prevent stockpiling and speculation in agricultural markets, the risk of further flair ups will remain a constant threat.
Protecting the vulnerable and maintaining open trade are just two of the many actions that governments must take as they embark on wider, more transformative reforms that parse the vulnerability of food systems to shocks. The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a welcome coordination effort amid the war but longer-term plans are also required in the face of the spiraling climate emergency – especially with the Ukrainian Grain Association forecasting a 17 tonne decline in grain exports from the region in 2023 due in part to poor weather conditions. The initiative is set to expire in March, and with no guarantee of an extension, the 900,000 people currently facing famine need longer term fixes that build resilience, support adaptation and localize production.
Thankfully many of these solutions are readily available, and countries can take significant strides in the direction of food systems stability by supporting farmer-led innovation, tackling food loss and waste, redirecting subsidies towards sustainable agricultural practices, and promoting consumption of diverse and indigenous foods. A recent brief published by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) offers policy guidance on implementing these shifts and aligning efforts to build resilience with those targeting sustainability.
In the space of just 12 months, the war in Ukraine has wreaked havoc on the world’s food systems, devastating lives and inflaming a global hunger crisis of historic proportions. FOLU stands in solidarity with the millions worldwide who have come together to condemn the conflict, pay respect to its victims and appeal for peace. While we wait for its arrival, we will continue to make the urgent case for food systems transformation in hope that it is this – not the violence – that shapes the course of progress on hunger for generations to come.