by Lee H. Hamilton
The world is seeing the effects of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine in rising oil and natural gas prices. A much more serious impact is coming: a global food catastrophe.
The war isn’t the only cause, of course. Bad weather exacerbated by climate change, including drought and floods, plays a role. So does bad government: flawed policies and programs for trade, immigration and agriculture. High energy prices and supply chain problems compound the situation.
Regardless of the causes, this is an urgent problem that the world needs to take seriously. It is a global crisis, and it requires a global response. We need a worldwide effort, led by the United Nations, to address this crisis.
According to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the food shortage could last for years, bringing malnutrition, mass hunger and famine for tens of millions of people. That’s a startling statement: that the problem is so serious, and we may not be able to solve it for years.
Experts say that more than a billion people will not be sure of getting enough to eat. The number of people classified by the World Food Program as “food insecure” has doubled in two years, to 276 million.
A decade ago, U.N. member nations set a goal of “zero hunger” by 2030, and some progress was being made. But the COVID-19 pandemic, with its disruption of the world economy, set back the effort. With the war in Ukraine and other issues, things are getting worse, not better.
Russia and Ukraine together supply 28% of the world market for wheat, 29% for barley, 15% for corn and 75% for sunflower oil. But exports largely stopped when the war began in February. Last year’s Ukrainian harvests are stuck in ports, which are blockaded and mined. Storage facilities are full, with no room for this year’s harvest.
When the global food supply goes down, prices go up. For those who have access to food, inflation makes it less affordable. The World Food Program has seen costs for feeding the world’s poor rise by $70 million per month. Farmers have struggled to produce more food because of high costs for fuel, fertilizer and pesticides.
There’s a blame game going on, unfortunately, with Western leaders pointing the finger at Russia and its unprovoked war and Putin blaming the sanctions imposed by the United States and our allies. We’ve got to move on from that and get down to solving the problem.
The war isn’t the only cause of the crisis. Food production relies on moderate and predictable weather, but climate change has produced more extremes. Heavy rains delayed planting in China, an important wheat producer. Drought in the Great Plains cut into U.S. grain harvests. In East Africa, four straight rainy seasons failed for the first time in 40 years. Many food-producing countries have halted or limited their exports as a result.
Food shortages destabilize governments and cause mass migration of hungry, desperate people. Rising food prices have fueled street protests in Argentina, Indonesia, Greece, Iran and elsewhere.
The crisis can seem overwhelming, but we can produce enough food to feed the world; we just need to deal with the barriers that keep food from getting where it needs to go. Nations can work together, for example, to prioritize getting food to the areas most at risk of famine.
We need an entirely new mindset. We have to think big about not just reducing hunger but eliminating it. This will take a much deeper investment by the public and private sectors. We need more research, more policy studies, and strong leadership to implement their findings.
There are very few challenges that demand more of the international community than this global food crisis. The stakes are enormous, and we’ve got to come together to find solutions.