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War in the breadbasket: Hunger and the humanitarian fallout from the war in Ukraine

War in the breadbasket
Ukrainian children fleeing to Poland Photo: Mirek Pruchnicki/Flickr

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have a serious impact on both local and global food security. The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is only the beginning. Since the conflict threatens global food supply, there will be far-reaching repercussions for humanitarian actors. Already prior to the war, humanitarian needs outpaced the response to meet them. This reality deserves attention. Also, it is critical to understand the risks to food security in order to have a better chance of managing them.  

Food insecurity in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion has caused an increase in food insecurity across Ukraine. Food supplies are shrinking in the fighting zones, and the encircled southern city of Mariupol is the most flagrant example of the brutality of the war. With no access to supply lines, trapped civilians are suffering acute food and water shortages, all under regular and indiscriminate shelling. This leads to desperate acts, as indicated by reports of people melting snow for water, stealing food and eating stray dogs. Hunger is not looming in war-torn Ukraine, it is a reality in the cities under attack and it threatens to spread. The war has also pushed almost 4 million Ukrainians to cross the borders into neighbouring countries.

Amid fears of food shortages and in order to alleviate hunger, the Ukrainian Government has banned exports of locally produced food commodities, including wheat, barley and sunflower oil. As a result, Ukraine will probably become a net consumer of these. Further, should the planting season take place despite the conflict, it is likely that production will be destined to cover domestic needs first. The country could even shift to being a net recipient of food aid—meaning dependent on food aid to ensure food security—as the war wages on.  

Responding to a new emergency

The crisis in Ukraine is now at the top of the world’s agenda. Humanitarian organizations have stepped in to support vulnerable people in Ukraine and neighbouring countries as part of the emergency response. Among these, Action Against Hunger and the World Food Programme (WFP) provide food assistance to the most vulnerable. For now, WFP relies on locally sourced food in Ukraine to support people inside the country when feasible. However, further disruptions and damage to infrastructure could interrupt this local procurement. WFP is already supplementing supplies by shipping ready-to-eat food from abroad for people on the move. It is also diverting rations from other operations with sufficient stockpiles to respond to the emergency. According to WFP, these will be replaced once enough funding reaches Ukraine. So far, 41 per cent has been raised of the $1.7 billion that the United Nations and partners have appealed for in order to respond to the crisis.

Ripple effects on humanitarian assistance worldwide

The bans on exports and the increased needs in Ukraine have serious implications for humanitarian food supplies. Before the war, the global humanitarian system relied on the country as one of the main suppliers of food. WFP used to buy half its wheat from Ukraine for food assistance, including in-kind distributions. Indeed, these distributions remain the organization’s core delivery mechanism for food assistance. Food supplies, therefore, play a key role in ensuring food security and averting famine in hunger hotspots.

Conflict in a breadbasket region like Ukraine has inevitable impacts on global food prices. This brings additional costs for humanitarian actors as well. In 2020, agencies reported weakened purchasing power due to higher food prices, as part of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. WFP, for example, reported higher monthly costs of $42 million in 2020. The conflict in Ukraine is now putting further pressure on global food prices. Today, WFP estimates it costs $71 million more every month to pursue its work globally. However, these additional costs come at a time when global needs have outpaced global funding, widening the humanitarian funding gap.

A widening funding gap

Increasing humanitarian needs and hunger levels preceded the war in Ukraine. But funding has not increased at the same pace globally. Estimates show that 811 million people are hungry globally and that global food production could feed 10 billion people. The evidence is indisputable: there is enough food to ensure food security for all. Yet global hunger is on the rise, with the number of people at risk of famine increasing from 27 million in 2019 to 44 million in 2022, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and conflict. According to the UN, prior to the conflict in Ukraine, 274 million people would have been in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, which represents a 17 per cent increase compared to 2021.

The situation is particularly concerning in 13 underfunded humanitarian operations, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Honduras, Lebanon, Madagascar, Myanmar and Syria. Prior to the Ukraine crisis, underfunding had already resulted in food rations being cut in South Sudan and Yemen. Meanwhile, the magnitude of needs has continued to augment. The gap between humanitarian means and humanitarian needs is likely to grow further as new emergencies arise, putting additional pressure on a humanitarian system that is already overstretched. Organizations such as OXFAM also warn against the reallocation of aid budgets to fund the response in Ukraine. For now, countries like France, the Netherlands and Spain are deploying additional funding. But donor countries that are reallocating humanitarian aid to Ukraine could undermine other humanitarian responses across the globe. An additional 7.6 to 13.1 million people risk becoming undernourished because of what is happening in Ukraine.

To conclude

Russia’s invasion has sparked a devastating humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, which will have implications for other crises across the globe. This in turn will impact global hunger. More civilians are likely to go to bed on an empty stomach, both in Ukraine and beyond. While there should unarguably be a focus on the suffering in Ukraine, the clock is also ticking in other crisis hotspots. Humanitarian organizations are forced to choose between feeding fewer people or feeding more with reduced food rations. This is an impossible choice. No one should face starvation in 2022 in a world of plenty where there is enough food to feed everyone.

This blog post is the third of a three-part series that explores threats to food security posed by the war in Ukraine.




Marie Riquier is a Research Assistant in the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.