Food crisis: Food-insecure population doubled in 2 years, says UN Secretary-General

Agencies call upon countries to increase food production and not to stop export as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on  

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 20 May 2022
Food crisis: Food-insecure population doubled in 2 years: UN Secretary-General Photo: iStock

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned that the food crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war is going out of control, hitting the poorest countries the most.

In the ministerial meeting on Global Food Security Call to Action, Guterres said, “It (the war) threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”

The food crisis — characterised by record-breaking food inflation and near-cessation of grains from these two countries to around 50 importing countries — has hit the world when hunger was already high due to the pandemic and the uneven recovery from it

Global hunger levels are at a new high. In just two years, the number of severely food-insecure people has doubled, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today, he said in a statement just before the Security Council meeting.

Literally, the global food market is under a siege. Russia-Ukraine is one of the world’s food baskets. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter while Ukraine is the sixth largest. 

Identified as the Black Sea region, the two countries produce 12 per cent of all food calories traded globally and control 29 per cent global wheat exports, 19 per cent maize exports as well as 78 per cent sunflower oil exports.

Russia is the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilisers, the second-leading supplier of potassium fertilisers and the third-largest exporter of phosphorus fertilisers. Together, they control a significant global supply chain of food and fertilisers. 

Watch: How Russia-Ukraine war impacted wheat market

Some 50 countries depend on Russia-Ukraine for their food supply, particularly for wheat, maize and sunflower oils. A majority of these are the poor and import-dependent countries in Asia, West Asia and Africa.

In 2021, 36 out of the 53 countries / territories with food crisis depended on Ukrainian and Russian exports for more than 10 per cent of their total wheat imports. This included 21 countries with major food crises. 

In terms of food supply, wheat and its products represented on average 408 kilocalories per capita per day in 2019 across food-crisis countries.

In East Africa alone, where wheat and wheat products account for a third of the average cereal consumption, 90 per cent of all wheat imports come from the two countries, according to the World Food Programme, the food assistance unit of UN.

Guterres said: 

Two weeks ago, I visited the Sahel region of Africa, where I met families who do not know where their next meal is coming from. Severe acute malnutrition — a wasting disease that can kill if left untreated — is rising. 

Farm animals are already dying of hunger, added the UN chief executive.  “Leaders told me that, because of the war in Ukraine, on top of the other crises they face, they fear this dangerous situation could tip into catastrophe.”

More than half a million people are living in famine conditions, according to UN — an increase of more than 500 per cent since 2016.

“If high fertiliser prices continue, today’s crisis in grain and cooking oil could affect many other foods, including rice, impacting billions of people in Asia and the Americas,” he said.

UN has been making urgent calls to countries to not stop exporting food items. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the number of countries imposing export restrictions on food has climbed to 17 from three.

The total amount of exports affected by the restrictions represents about 17 per cent of total calories traded in the world. These include export bans implemented by 16 countries covering 29 separate measures and account for 12.4 per cent of traded calories; and export licensing requirements implemented by seven countries covering 10 separate measures and accounting for 4.6 per cent of traded calories, according to International Food Policy Research Institute’s Export Restrictions Tracker.

Read more: Extensive coverage of Russia-Ukraine conflict

“There should be no restrictions on exports, and surpluses must be made available to those most in need. But, let’s be clear: There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets — despite the war,” said Guterres.

India’s ban on export of wheat on May 14 has come under criticism from the advanced countries. In the UN Security Council meeting as well, G7 countries asked India to revert its decision. 

Though India is the second-largest producer of wheat, it hardly exports. Given the current scarcity of wheat supply, India’s promised 10 million tonnes earlier could have eased the situation.

India's Union Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, told the UN meeting as a response to this criticism:

A number of low-income societies are today confronted with the twin challenges of rising costs and difficulty in access to food grains. Even those like India, who have adequate stocks, have seen an unjustified increase in food prices. 

“It is clear that hoarding and speculation is at work. We cannot allow this to pass unchallenged,” he added. 

UN agencies and the World Bank have recently called on countries to speed up more food production, indicating the current crisis is precipitating. 

The World Bank declared a $30 billion project on May 18 to enhance food production and nutrition supply in food-insecure regions.

World Bank Group President David Malpass, said in a statement while launching the new funding: To inform and stabilise markets, it is critical that countries make clear statements now of future output increases in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Countries should make concerted efforts to increase the supply of energy and fertiliser, help farmers increase plantings and crop yields, and remove policies that block exports and imports, divert food to biofuel, or encourage unnecessary storage, he added.

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