Ukraine and Russia are the world’s largest wheat exporters. But because of the war, they now threaten huge crop losses, with dire consequences for the poorest countries in Africa.
Munich – The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned of the possible consequences of the war in Ukraine*. In view of the massive losses of wheat crops in Ukraine and the Russian ban on exporting grain and fertilizers, there was a risk that the famine “would affect large regions of the world and several countries of the world,” warned Mario, head of Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture (SMIA) Interview with Zappacosta. Merkur.de*she spoke to the economist about the tight supply situation, the risk of social unrest and the drastic changes in aid funds.
Mario, Ukraine and Russia account for 30 percent of world wheat exports. Many African countries obtain most of their wheat needs from these two countries. But due to the war, farmers in Ukraine cannot plant. At the same time, Russia has imposed an export ban on wheat and other grains and fertilizers, and the FAO index for staple foods is at record levels.. How worried are you?
In fact, we view the development with great concern. But that’s not just because of the war. Most of the problems with the supply of basic food in many poorer countries in Africa, for example, existed before the war broke out, just think of the prices on the world market: food prices were already at record levels in 2020 and 2021. This has continued since the beginning of the year and has even accelerated since the outbreak of the war. In March alone, the FAO grain sub-index rose 24.9 percent from February, while the edible oil sub-index rose 23.2 percent over the month. We haven’t seen a similar drastic increase across the board since the FAO Food Index was introduced in 1990.
Was the supply situation, at least for wheat, already tight due to a weaker-than-expected US crop?
Yeah. Now it’s getting even tighter. In the current year, about ten to twelve million tons of wheat will be missing from the world market due to the war in Ukraine. Therefore, we must be prepared for further price increases.
FAO expert: Yemen and Lebanon face terrible famines
Which countries will feel the consequences of the failed delivery of Ukraine and Russia in particular?
This will mainly affect the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, but also the countries of the Horn of Africa, that is, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. In the past, these countries have already had to deal with huge food supply problems due to extreme droughts, local conflicts, and more recently, the Covid pandemic. With the strong price increases on the world market and the consequences of the Ukraine conflict, the situation is becoming even more acute.
Who is likely to be the most affected?
We see the greatest dangers in Yemen and Lebanon.
In both countries, the diet is largely based on wheat. Furthermore, both states had to face great difficulties even before the outbreak of the war. A terrible civil war has raged in Yemen for years, and malnutrition is widespread there. With supplies tight and wheat prices high, rampant malnutrition could now lead to severe famine.
Lebanon is in a serious economic crisis. The national currency has collapsed against other major currencies such as the US dollar. This has already made grain and food imports much more expensive. Furthermore, the central wheat storage facility in the port of Beirut was completely destroyed in a huge explosion in August 2020*. Lebanon can currently store wheat for only two months. That is why the country now has to continually buy more wheat on the world market, and at high and rising prices.
How many people could be particularly affected by the shortage of wheat supply?
At FAO, we assume that the Ukraine crisis alone is threatening another eight to 13 million people with malnutrition.
FAO Expert: Rising Fertilizer Prices Will Further Aggravate Supply Situation In Poorest Countries
It’s not just food prices that are rising around the world. Fertilizers are also becoming more and more expensive. How dangerous is this development for the world’s poorest countries?
That is a big problem. Fertilizer production consumes a lot of energy and oil and gas prices have also risen sharply recently. As a result, historically high fertilizer prices should continue to rise. As a result, many farmers in the poorest countries will find it difficult to afford fertilizer and will plant less or as much as before, but with lower yields. This applies not only to the cultivation of wheat, but to all types of agricultural crops, be it vegetables, feed products or rice.
So the situation is worrying?
We have had several famines in Somalia, Sudan and other countries in recent years. But these were crises at the national level. Our concern is that, due to the consequences of the war in Ukraine, we may soon face a crisis of much greater scope, affecting large regions of the world and several countries of the world. Such a scenario is becoming more likely every day.
Serious political unrest has just broken out in Sri Lanka due to shortages in food supply to the population. Rising commodity prices have also played a central role in other unrest such as the Arab Spring. Does this scenario threaten again now?
We know from history that when staple food prices go up, it often leads to riots and riots. Of course, governments can subsidize basic needs with state aid payments or support the situation in other ways. But that largely depends on the respective financial possibilities. If a country is poor and prices on the world market rise sharply, the situation becomes more and more complicated. There comes a time when governments have to decide: do we invest in infrastructure, health or education, or in food?
FAO Expert: Aid Funds Currently Flow Mainly To Ukraine
What does development mean for humanitarian aid?
Currently, a significant and growing amount of public and private aid is pouring into Ukraine due to the war. However, the absolute amount of aid money is not increasing, the money is simply going elsewhere. Take Somalia as an example: the country has requested billions in aid, but has received only a fraction so far.
So the world is forgetting the poorest countries because of the current crisis in Ukraine?
This is not a new development. We also experienced something similar during the Syrian war. For example, if more money goes to Ukraine, less goes to South Sudan, without the situation in South Sudan having improved at all in recent years.
What does that mean for the local population: more people will turn their backs on their homeland and seek refuge in other countries, including Europe?
Wars and famines have regularly led to refugee movements in the past. A possible deterioration in the food supply and growing social tensions are also likely to lead to increased migration.
What could Germany and the EU do to help?
Rich countries are already helping in many different ways. The EU, but also individual countries such as Italy or Germany, have launched numerous aid programs or support NGOs, other humanitarian aid organizations and the UN. But it is also true that 20 years ago there was much more help available than today. During the corona pandemic*, this development was particularly evident again. All the rich countries were in recession and, due to the lockdown, they focused mainly on supporting their own economies. Hardly anyone thought of the farmers in Somalia.
But again: What would have to happen in concrete terms for the situation in the poorest countries to improve at least a little?
An important approach would certainly be better and more careful handling of food. In richer countries, we often buy more than we can eat and then a lot of food goes bad in the fridge. In the poorest countries, a lot of production is lost on the way from field to market, if only because transport takes too long and produce spoils along the way. Quickly 25 to 30 percent of the crop is lost. The second key point would be investments in infrastructure. In many poorer countries, for example, the construction of roads would already help farmers to sell their products in more distant markets. And third, and at least as important, would be additional investments in education and knowledge, for example in new technologies in farming. All these levers would bring notable improvements.
to person: Mario Zappacosta is an economist and head of the Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. GIEWS monitors food supply and demand around the world. Zappacosta has led numerous FAO missions to various countries affected by food crises, including Syria, Sudan, Yemen and North Korea.
*Merkur.de is part of IPPEN.MEDIA