The Economist reports that Russia’s war on Ukraine is set to cause hundreds of millions more people to fall into poverty. Political unrest will spread, children will be stunted and people will starve.
It says Russia’s President Putin must not use food as a weapon. Also, that shortages are not the inevitable outcome of war. World leaders should see hunger as a global problem urgently requiring a global solution.
Since the war started, 23 countries from Kazakhstan to Kuwait have declared severe restrictions on food exports that cover 10% of globally traded calories. More than one-fifth of all fertiliser exports are restricted. If trade stops, famine will ensue.
States need to act together, starting by keeping markets open. This week Indonesia, source of 60% of the world’s palm oil, lifted a temporary ban on exports.
Europe should help Ukraine ship its grain via rail and road to ports in Romania or the Baltics, though even the most optimistic forecasts say that just 20% of the harvest could get out that way.
Importing countries need support, too, so they do not end up being capsized by enormous bills. Emergency supplies of grain should go only to the very poorest. For others, import financing on favourable terms, perhaps provided through the International Monetary Fund would allow donors’ dollars to go further. Debt relief may also help to free up vital resources.
There is scope for substitution. About 10% of all grains are used to make biofuel; and 18% of vegetable oils go to biodiesel. Finland and Croatia have weakened mandates that require petrol to include fuel from crops. Others should follow their lead.
An enormous amount of grain is used to feed animals. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, grain accounts for 13% of cattle dry feed. In 2021 China imported 28m tonnes of corn to feed its pigs, more than Ukraine exports in a year.
Immediate relief would come from breaking the Black Sea blockade. Roughly 25m tonnes of corn and wheat, equivalent to the annual consumption of all of the world’s least developed economies, is trapped in Ukraine.
Three countries must be brought onside: Russia needs to allow Ukrainian shipping; Ukraine has to de-mine the approach to Odessa; and Turkey needs to let naval escorts through the Bosporus.
That will not be easy. Russia, struggling on the battlefield, is trying to strangle Ukraine’s economy. Ukraine is reluctant to clear its mines.
Persuading them to relent will be a task for countries, including India and China, that have sat out the war. Convoys may require armed escorts endorsed by a broad coalition.
But, feeding a fragile world is everyone’s business.
Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of the barley, 15% of the maize and 75% of the sunflower oil. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories.
Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave.
The high cost of staple foods has already raised the number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat by 440m, to 1.6bn. Nearly 250m are on the brink of famine.