As food prices and hunger surge worldwide, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are “marching towards starvation”—increasing the likelihood of preventable deaths, civil unrest, and political violence in the months ahead—the United Nations food chief warned Thursday.
Speaking from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, World Food Program (WFP) Director David Beasley said that “frightening” shortages of key food staples put tens of millions of lives in jeopardy and risk destabilizing countries that are heavily reliant on imports.
“Even before the Ukraine crisis, we were facing an unprecedented global food crisis because of COVID and fuel price increases,” said Beasley. “Then, we thought it couldn’t get any worse, but this war has been devastating.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February and imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports, agricultural exports from Ukraine—responsible for 9% of the world’s wheat, 16% of its maize, and 42% of its sunflower oil—have declined substantially, leaving millions of tons of stored grain on the cusp of rotting.
The war also disrupted this year’s planting season, raising fears that this summer’s harvest, assuming sufficient labor power and storage space can be found, will be a third lower than in 2021.
Consequently, food prices have soared to record highs—surpassing levels last seen during the global crisis of 2007-08, when a spike in the cost of bread helped contribute to the Arab Spring uprisings—and put tens of millions of people at increased risk of extreme hunger.
Citing the increased costs of shipping, fertilizer, and fuel associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the Ukraine war, Beasley said that the number of people suffering from “chronic hunger” has grown from 650 million to 810 million over the past five years.
Meanwhile, the number of people suffering from “shock hunger,” which Beasley defined as not knowing “where your next meal is coming from,” has ballooned from 80 million to 325 million over the same time period.
Russia’s war on Ukraine isn’t the only factor driving global hunger, which hit an all-time high in 2021 and has only grown worse since then.
A report published earlier this month by WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization made clear that armed conflicts, increasingly extreme weather stemming from the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency, and the lingering economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis—prolonged by inequitable access to vaccines, tests, and treatments—are also exacerbating food insecurity.
Responding to the report, which warned that an all-time high of 49 million people in 46 low-income countries are now at risk of famine, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said last week that “this should be the biggest story in the world right now.”
As the global hunger crisis grows more severe, the U.N.’s capacity for addressing the unfolding humanitarian disaster is being diminished simultaneously.
WFP sources 70% of the wheat for its emergency relief programs from Russia and Ukraine. As a result of the war, the WFP’s operating costs have skyrocketed by $70 million per month, forcing it to slash rations by as much as half in several nations.
According to the U.N.’s recent report, of the nearly 50 million people at risk of famine globally, 750,000 are already in “catastrophe”—the most dire phase of the food insecurity scale.
People in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen—war-torn and drought-stricken countries that import large quantities of wheat from Russia and Ukraine—are among those experiencing the worst acute hunger. Another hotspot mentioned in the report is Afghanistan, whose central bank reserves have been seized by the Biden administration.
Referring to the crash that started in 2007 and culminated in bread riots in dozens of countries, Beasley said that “the economic factors we have today are much worse than those we saw 15 years ago.” Failing to confront the current crisis, he warned, would lead to “famine, destabilization of nations, and mass migration.”
“We are already seeing riots in Sri Lanka and protests in Tunisia, Pakistan, and Peru, and we’ve had destabilization take place in places like Burkina Faso, Mali, [and] Chad,” said Beasley. “This is only a sign of things to come.”
“It is a very, very frightening time,” Beasley continued. “We are facing hell on Earth if we do not respond immediately. The best thing we can do right now is end that damn war in Russia and Ukraine and get the port open” in Odessa.
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