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War in the breadbasket: One year in

Grain being loaded into holds of sea cargo vessel, Odessa, Ukraine, Aug. 2021. Shutterstock/Elena Larina
Grain being loaded into holds of sea cargo vessel, Odessa, Ukraine, Aug. 2021. Shutterstock/Elena Larina

It is one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war has had a devastating impact on the people of Ukraine and shaken the foundations of post-cold war European security. But its repercussions have been much wider.

In April last year, SIPRI published a series of three blogs looking at the implications of a war taking place in one of the world’s biggest grain exporters and that has seen trade sanctions affecting both Russia’s exports of grain and fertilizers. What were the risks for global food security, humanitarian responses and political stability in countries beyond Ukraine’s borders? Here, this blog post explores how those risks have played out and the prospects ahead as the world enters the second year of this war in the breadbasket.

How the war has impacted global food supplies

Violent conflict has been the main driver of an increase in global food insecurity that started some eight years ago. The impact has primarily been felt in the countries where the conflict occurs—indeed, the world’s worst food crises are persistently found in conflict-affected countries.

The war in Ukraine has broken this pattern. While it has led to a significant spike in food insecurity in Ukraine, it has also had a major impact on global supply chains and international trade in food and fertilizers. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why potentially 50 million more people—the majority of them outside Ukraine—may have become severely food insecure since the invasion (see figure 1).

By June 2022, the war had already resulted in total damage of between US$2.2 billion and $6.4 billion on the agricultural sector in Ukraine. The World Food Programme (WFP) reported in December 2022 that over 25 per cent of previously cultivated areas were estimated to have been rendered unproductive due to the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance, the displacement of farm workers, and overall insecurity. In a November 2022 survey, nearly 40 per cent of the rural population in frontline areas of Ukraine reported that they had reduced or halted agricultural production. Based on US Department of Agriculture figures, Ukrainian grain production fell by 40 per cent in 2021.

As well as the damage to Ukraine’s agricultural sector, the war has prevented large quantities of food and livestock feed products from reaching global supply chains. Direct military action, such as the mining and blockading of Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea and Black Sea, severely restricted exports in the first few months after the invasion. The July 2022 Black Sea Grain Initiative paved the way for the resumption of exports of Ukrainian grain and Russian food and fertilizers via the Black Sea. It has allowed over 21 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs to be exported from Ukrainian ports so far. Nevertheless, the agreement is fragile.

Some 32 countries imposed restrictions on food exports during 2022 aimed at protecting domestic food security as global market prices soared and food supplies were disrupted. Furthermore, economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries have also affected Russian food exports. Although the sanctions regime was designed to spare the Russian agricultural sector, as well as its exports of food, feed and fertilizer, it has nevertheless had an impact on companies’ willingness to do business with Russian suppliers. Furthermore, Russia has responded to the sanctions with countermeasures, that include restricting food exports to, for example, the European Union (EU) while increasing food exports to countries with which it maintains friendly and good trading relations.

Ripple effects and interactions

The significant reductions in Russian and Ukrainian agricultural products reaching the global market have had severe impacts on some countries that depend on imports from Ukraine and Russia. Many of these, for instance Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia, were already suffering from high levels of food insecurity before the war.

The situation has been made worse by a series of devastating weather-related events in 2022. Drought and flooding in many countries have severely impacted local food production. Extreme weather during critical sowing and harvest periods also curtailed the ability of other major grain-producing countries and regions, including the EU and the United States, to make up for the shortfall of food exports from Ukraine and Russia. While some regions recorded above average cereal production in 2022, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecast in December 2022 that global production, stocks and trade of grain would fall to a three-year low.

Although international food prices have fallen since a peak in March 2022, domestic food inflation remains high in many countries, and exceptionally so in countries hit by economic mismanagement, conflict or poor governance. Perhaps of even more concern is that global fertilizer prices have climbed even faster than food prices and remain high, although somewhat lower than their peak last year.

Furthermore, according to the WFP, high fertilizer prices risk turning the current food affordability crisis into a food availability crisis, with production of maize, rice, soybean and wheat all falling in 2022.

Impacts on social and political stability

The invasion of Ukraine and its fallout pushed up not only food prices but also fuel prices. This came as states and households around the world were already struggling with the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which pushed more than 70 million people into poverty. Governments in low- and middle-income countries, in particular, struggled to support their populations through social programmes.

Anger about socio-economic issues drove anti-government protests around the world to a new high in 2022, and the war’s impacts on food and fuel prices undoubtedly played an important role. There were over 12 500 protests about food, energy and the rising cost of living in 150 countries during the year. Many of the largest demonstrations over economic issues took place in Europe, most notably in Belgium, France, Germany and Spain. Social unrest, partly due to rising food and fuel prices, had a politically destabilizing effect in  EcuadorKazakhstan, Peru, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

No matter the context, the protestors’ grievances were focused on governments’ failure to ensure affordable access to basic goods and services. Analysts identified countries heavily dependent on food imports from Russia and Ukraine, such as Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, as being particularly at risk of civil unrest in the wake of the invasion.  

Lebanon was the focus of one of SIPRI’s war in the breadbasket blogs last year. Lebanon was of particular concern given its high dependence on Ukrainian wheat, its neglected agricultural sector, and a series of economic and political shocks and crises that had hit the country in the last few years.

Lebanon saw 179 protests against the high cost of living in the 12 months from November 2021. Interestingly, however, the number of protests there in the first six months of 2022 was half that in the previous six months, even though the war in Ukraine pushed up domestic food prices, which were already high due to the economic, financial and political crisis that started in Lebanon in 2019. It is unclear why this happened; possible explanatory factors include the elections in May 2022, crisis relief provided through patronage from the ruling elite, and the Lebanese Central Bank’s intervention in the market to strengthen the Lebanese pound. Since then, a World Bank loan for wheat supplies and Russian wheat donations announced in November 2022 may have further improved food security.

Humanitarian fallout

The war in the breadbasket has also affected the ability of the international community to respond to humanitarian crises. Global humanitarian needs are at an all-time high, which triggered a record $51 billion UN-backed humanitarian appeal for 2023, far outpacing available funding. While a widening humanitarian funding gap predates the war in Ukraine, the war is rapidly exacerbating the humanitarian caseload for the reasons outlined above. 

Major war on European soil has dominated media coverage and refocused geopolitical discussions away from resolving major human security challenges. This shift is reflected in developments in the broader aid sector and in changing donor priorities.  

There is a growing trend among donor countries to redirect existing official development assistance (ODA), which includes humanitarian aid, towards scaling up support to Ukraine. In less than a year, donors have funded 73 per cent of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) humanitarian response plan in Ukraine. In contrast Haiti and Myanmar, which are among countries experiencing equally devastating humanitarian crises in 2022, have seen their response plans funded only up to 42 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively.

Donors are also increasingly reporting the costs associated with taking in refugees as part of their ODA. Among others, Norway has announced it will reallocate 1.5 billion krone (around US$150 million) from international development projects to fund housing refugees as a consequence of the war. In addition, crisis responses in the Global South are losing experienced personnel and suffering staffing shortfalls as humanitarian workers are being redeployed to Ukraine.

Outlook and ways forward

Global food security has rapidly deteriorated since the war broke out in Ukraine one year ago. Few, if any, parts of the world have been left unaffected due to the vital role Ukraine and Russia play in producing food traded on the global food markets and for use by the major humanitarian agencies, such as the WFP.

However, it is crucial to recognize that this crisis is an outcome of failing food systems that have proved unable to withstand a succession of interconnected shocks, including the Covid-19 pandemic, extreme weather events and economic shocks, in combination with longer-term drivers of food insecurity such as violent conflict.

The war in Ukraine is unlikely to end soon. At the same time, the number and intensity of both armed conflicts and climate change impacts are steadily increasing. Global leaders and the heads of humanitarian agencies are struggling to respond to the war and the crisis it is creating, let alone generate the bandwidth to address the longer-range issues and break the links between hunger and conflict.

Among other things, this would require approaching food security as an issue of global stability, security and peace as well as a question of social and economic development and human well-being. Framing it this way should ensure that the response to food insecurity includes addressing the root causes of violent conflict while ensuring that humanitarian and development aid alike address the fragility of food systems, not just food supply. The alternative is a cycle of food crises and emergency relief plans, with no end to food insecurity in sight.


Dr Caroline Delgado is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.
Dr Kristina Tschunkert was a Researcher with the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.
Marie Riquier is a Research Assistant in the Food, Peace and Security Programme at SIPRI.