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War in the breadbasket: The ripple effects on food insecurity and conflict risk beyond Ukraine

War in the breadbasket
Photo: Defence Imagery/Flickr

The war in Ukraine poses serious threats to food security, including far beyond Ukraine’s borders. This not only jeopardizes lives and livelihoods, it can stoke socio-economic and political instability.

The daily reports of food and water running out in areas of Ukraine being attacked by Russian troops illustrate the devastating and immediate impact of armed conflict on food security. People trapped in cities such as Mariupol face starvation. According to some reports, this is a deliberate tactic by the Russian Army.

The invasion is happening as Ukraine’s spring planting season is about to begin, and not long before wheat planted last autumn is due to be harvested. Furthermore, a significant proportion of last year’s harvest is stuck in warehouses, as export shipments have ground to a halt. At the same time, Russian grain deals are paused due to uncertainties around sanctions, while shipments face crippling insurance costs. The implications are significant. The two countries account for just over half the global output of sunflower oil, 19 per cent of barley, 14 per cent of wheat and 4 per cent of maize. As a result of these disruptions, it is estimated that global supplies of major agricultural products will fall by 10–50 per cent.

Spreading hunger

War in one of the world’s foremost breadbasket regions could not have come at a more critical time. Already in 2020 the UN warned that the world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years (see figure 1). The main drivers it identified were conflict, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the worst-affected countries are also dependent on Ukraine and Russia for their food supplies.

In Yemen, for example, armed conflict has already left up to 31 000 people facing famine and more than 17 million in need of food assistance. Forty per cent of its wheat flour comes from Russia and Ukraine. The price per kilogram has risen more than five-fold in the past weeks. This comes on top of a 133 per cent increase between 2016 and 2020.

The situation is even worse in Somalia. The country was already facing renewed famine at the beginning of the year. Over 90 per cent of its wheat supplies come from Russia and Ukraine, and prices have risen by 300 per cent in the past few weeks. Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria are other war-torn countries similarly affected by the disruption of supplies from Russia and Ukraine.

From food insecurity to political instability

There is also a real risk that increasing food insecurity and rising food prices linked to the war in Ukraine could lead to social and political crises in other countries. Poverty and inequality were already on the increase around the globe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The knock-on impacts of the Ukraine crisis on food markets could aggravate them further, increasing grievances against governments and inducing people to turn to violence. This risk is greater in societies where there are already strong feelings of frustration, in particular among youth, regarding political and economic inequalities.

Food-related unrest, protests and riots have already taken place in Albania, Iraq and Sri Lanka since the invasion of Ukraine. It is highly likely that food prices will continue to rise, as the impact on food supplies increases. Countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, due to their large youth populations, heavy dependency on Russian and Ukrainian grain exports and recent experience of instability linked to food-related grievances, may be particularly exposed to risk.

History is rife with examples of how increasing food insecurity has contributed to the emergence and duration of violent conflict, from the French and Russian revolutions to the Arab Spring. Food riots are as old as civilization itself.

The war in Ukraine and the worsening global food insecurity that has followed is a stark reminder of the links that exist between hunger and conflict. It is imperative that global leaders recognize and act on these links. Combating hunger is more than altruism. While the connections between food insecurity and conflict are highly contextual and complex, there is a body of evidence that can help global leaders to prevent the current alarming food security crisis becoming a crisis of social and political stability.


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


Dr Caroline Delgado is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.