The looming food crisis

Monica Naguib, Saturday 25 Jun 2022

After the Covid-19 pandemic and the threats of climate change, the war in Ukraine has added another factor bringing the world closer to serious food shortages.

Fathi Abul-Ezz
Fathi Abul-Ezz


“If we were to distribute 25 food bags, for example, each would cost us LE150. With the recent price increases, the cost has become LE200 for exactly the same bag,” said Osama Adham, head of Mercy Team, a project established by a group of young people in Cairo to help vulnerable families.

 Adham said that they are doing their best to deal with the price increases as they do not want to turn away any of the families they support. Giving them less food so they can stick to their budget is not on the table either. The only option is to find more contributions, whether from group members or outside donors.

The recent sharp rise in food prices in Egypt, along with many other countries, is directly related to the war in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, escalating the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began eight years ago. The consequences of the war are now being felt in countries across the world.

The war has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, for example. Because of Russia and Ukraine’s political and economic importance, the war has also affected world oil and food prices, threatening a global economic and food crisis.

Even before the invasion, the Global Network, an alliance of humanitarian and development agencies, stated that about 193 million people worldwide experienced extreme hunger in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such food shortages are expected to reach more countries in the near future, as the pandemic, climate change, and now the war in Ukraine push more and more people into poverty.

“As we look around the world, 276 million people are marching towards starvation,” said David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) executive director, at a conference recently. “And now we have got the breadbasket of the world being turned into breadlines. Who would have thought that we would see this in our time, our lifetimes? Mass migration is taking place out of Ukraine. And it will devastate the food security situation around the world,” he said.

While many countries have already been experiencing food shortages, as over half a million people are starving in countries like Ethiopia, South Sudan, Madagascar, and Yemen, Beasley warns that things are set to worsen.

According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, undernutrition is the lead cause of 50 per cent of all deaths of children under the age of five worldwide. There are about 149 million children who are chronically malnourished in the world today, putting one in every five children at risk of dying from common infections or diseases.

Research shows a clear link between food insecurity and delayed development in young children as well as the risk of chronic illnesses like anemia and asthma. Children born to hungry mothers are also likely to have smaller brains, poor physical health, and lower IQs.

Sadly, the war in Ukraine has caused a sharp decline in nutritional services for vulnerable children and families worldwide, particularly in Africa.

“If we do not get ahead of this thing, we will have not just famine in multiple countries around the world, because, you know, we have got additional droughts and all types of issues. You will have the destabilisation of some nations, and you will have mass migration by necessity. And no one wants that,” Beasley stressed.

“We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving.”

Ukraine’s strategic location on the Black Sea means that it acts as a connecting point between Asia and Europe. It is a main exporter of essential crops for 36 countries that import more than 50 per cent of their grains, including corn, wheat, maize, and barley. Russia is also a major global producer of oil, natural gas, and cereals.

With the war closing Ukrainian port cities, global supply chains for these crops have been halted.

The UN has warned that a global food crisis will be inevitable if this remains the case. It has also said that the war’s impact on global food markets could cause an additional 7.6 to 13.1 million people to live in famine-like conditions.

“Conflict and hunger are closely intertwined — when one escalates, the other usually follows. As in any crisis, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are hardest hit, and in our globalised world, the impact of this conflict will reverberate across continents.” said Gilbert Houngbo, president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).


Food prices remained flat for almost five years before the pandemic hit and then experienced an 18 per cent increase as a result. They have been increasing further due to the rise in transport costs and import bills, besides the trade disruptions.

According to the World Bank’s April 2022 Commodity Markets Outlook, the war in Ukraine has altered global trade, production, and consumption patterns, keeping food prices at high levels through the end of 2024.

On 19 May, its Agricultural Price Index increased by 42 per cent. Wheat and maize prices are 91 and 55 per cent higher, respectively, compared to January 2021.

The developing countries, in particular, are already facing inflation in food prices as well as fertiliser prices, among other production factors.

Over the coming months, another huge challenge will face the world in that access to fertilisers will be hindered. Between January and March, world fertiliser prices increased by around 20 per cent, almost three times higher than last year.

Russia, alongside Belarus, are significant fertiliser exporters, accounting for 38 per cent of potassic fertilisers, 17 per cent of compound fertilisers, and 15 per cent of nitrogenous fertilisers.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian farms are missing essential planting and harvesting seasons.

The UN has estimated that about 30 per cent of Ukrainian farmland is now in a war zone. Millions of Ukrainians have also either left the country or joined the front lines, reducing the manpower available to work the farms.

Ukraine was cut off when Russia blocked the Black Sea, and it also lacks enough rail cars to transport food overland. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the West have banned it from exporting food.

“We are deeply concerned about the combined impacts of overlapping crises jeopardising people’s ability to produce and access food, pushing millions more into extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” said Qu Dongyu, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) director-general.

“We are in a race against time to help farmers in the most affected countries, including by rapidly increasing potential food production and boosting their resilience in the face of challenges.”

The FAO and WFP issued a report on acute food insecurity in 20 “hunger hotspots” around the world on 6 June, demanding that urgent humanitarian action be taken.

The report says that most people suffering from the highest alert of hunger are residents of Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. These six countries have up to 750,000 people facing starvation or death, 400,000 of whom are in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, the African Sahel, Haiti, Sudan, and Syria are categorised as of very high concern by the report. Countries that have been considered for adding to the list are Ukraine, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Benin, Guinea, and Cabo Verde.

Additionally, Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Lebanon remain hunger hotspots.

Lebanon imports 80 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine. Tunisia, Libya, and Pakistan import nearly 50 per cent of their wheat needs from Russia. Iraq imports around 88 per cent of its sunflower oil from Ukraine.

Moreover, the UN report states that food shortages in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia have worsened due to the war. They have doubled since last year, and one person now dies every 48 seconds from extreme hunger.


With Egypt the largest buyer of wheat in the world, the war in Ukraine will severely affect its economy.

Around 80 per cent of Egypt’s wheat needs are supplied from Ukraine and Russia. The present inability to receive this wheat at the usual prices is a huge economic problem that will affect almost all Egyptians.

Bread is a main food item for most people, with Egypt recording a wheat consumption of 150 to 180 kg per capita per year. “Keeping bread affordable for the poor has been something of an informal social contract between citizens and the political authorities over the last 60 years,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a sociologist.

During a recent visit to London, Egypt’s finance minister, Mohamed Maait, warned of food insecurity, leading to the possible deaths of millions worldwide. He clarified that Egypt had enough wheat to last it until the end of 2022.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said last month that the government aims to buy six million tons of locally grown wheat alongside seeking new import sources. “Egypt was one of the few countries able to grow positively over the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Madbouli said, adding that its good economic situation would assist it in overcoming the current crisis.

 Minister of Agriculture Ali Moselhi announced earlier that the government is planning to produce more wheat as a way to reach self-sufficiency. Minister of Agriculture Al-Sayed Al-Qusseir said that local wheat cultivation had reached around 3.6 million acres, up from 3.1 million acres in 2018-19. Furthermore, storage has increased to 3.4 million tons from only 1.2 million tons earlier.

However, water scarcity remains an issue in producing more wheat. “The water issue is a pivotal issue in achieving sustainable development, which requires increased cooperation and the exchange of experiences between different countries in the field of water,” said Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Atti.

Besides agriculturally related efforts, one change that will likely affect most Egyptians is the plan to reduce the subsidies on bread and other food items, already implemented as part of the government’s bigger plans.

Last December, Madbouli said that “Egypt is no longer insulated from global inflationary pressures, and that it is time to reconsider the food subsidy programme.”

Egypt started an economic reform programme five years ago with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to gradually lift subsidies on fuel and food products. The subsidy percentage has already declined from 21.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 14 per cent in 2021-22 as a result.

For bread, the move has seen the weight of loaves reduced to reflect lower subsidies while keeping the cost to consumers the same.

Nasreddin Hajj Al-Amin, representative of the FAO in Egypt, said that “if wheat purchases from the Public Commission for Food Goods fall as expected in the coming years as a result of possible reforms in the support system, a sector of subsidised bread consumers will be led to purchase free-market bread.”


Ending hunger is the second of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.

Needless to say, achieving this goal has become more challenging with the current crises. However, a UN report published before the Ukraine war discusses six ways of transforming food systems and ensuring access to affordable healthy diets for all world citizens.

The first recommendation is to integrate development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding policies in conflict-affected areas. The second is to scale up climate resilience across food systems. The third is to strengthen the resilience of the vulnerable to economic adversity. The fourth is to intervene along food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods. The fifth is tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring pro-poor and inclusive interventions. Finally, the sixth is to strengthen food environments and change consumer behaviour to promote dietary patterns that positively impact human health and the environment.

Similarly, the World Bank in May announced action plans as part of a global response to the food crisis. It announced that $30 billion would be devoted to projects in agriculture, water, irrigation, nutrition, and social protection. The common goal is to support the production of food and fertilisers, boost food systems, facilitate trade, and aid vulnerable households.

“To inform and stabilise markets, it is critical that countries make clear statements of future output increases in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Countries should make concerted efforts to increase the supply of energy and fertilisers, help farmers increase plantings and crop yields, and remove policies that block exports and imports, divert food to biofuel, or encourage unnecessary storage,” World Bank Group President David Malpass said.

Over the next few months, the World Bank will direct resources to Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

In April, the IMF and the heads of the World Bank Group, the World Trade Organisation, and the WFP released a joint statement calling on the international community to implement urgent action to handle food insecurity, keep trade open, and support vulnerable countries through providing financial aid.

Later, over 75 speakers spoke at the UN Security Council on 19 May in a ministerial-level debate on conflict and food security. The representative of the Russian Federation refused to take responsibility for the global food shortage at this debate, saying that it had not only just appeared in 2022.

“Speculation on Western food futures markets” and the “unilateral, illegal economic sanctions” imposed on Russia were not the work of the Russian Federation, he said.

The Ukraine representative at the meeting said the Russian Federation was benefitting from Ukrainian grain, whether for consumption or by illegally selling it. He said the Ukraine war was a “war of choice” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that Putin was “responsible for the famine that awaits millions of people”.

Whatever the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the world’s current food crisis requires immediate action. Governments, humanitarian institutions, and NGOs need to take steps to prevent a possible global famine that will reach millions of people.

A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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