The scenes that journalists and humanitarian aid workers have seen in recent months are striking: in Sudan swollen babies search for something to eat. In Yemen, where warring factions have blocked humanitarian aid, hollow-eyed children and their mothers are languishing from starvation. In Ukraine, the elderly collect rancid rain for drinking water.
Malnutrition and hunger were major problems even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and cut Europe’s granary from its markets, sparking a flurry of dire warnings about the world’s food supply. Dozens of countries around the world are already suffering from devastating food shortages, so much so that the number of people facing famine has more than doubled in the past two years to 345 million, according to United Nations figures.
The causes are many: droughts and floods, and the disruption of supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in China. An estimated 20 wars or conflicts – the latest in Ukraine – have also severely disrupted access to food and water.
“The current food security challenge we face [is] because of these three Cs: climate, COVID and conflict,” said Ramin Toloui, deputy secretary of state for economic affairs, one of several officials in the Biden administration charged with food security issues.
The bleak situation caught the attention of powerful diplomats on Friday when US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and foreign ministers from six other of the world’s largest economies gathered in Germany to map out plans to alleviate global food shortages. Reduce. Few observers expect real solutions, but hope the summit will highlight the crisis and boost funding for hunger efforts.
The Biden administration has pledged about $8.5 billion for emergency food aid and related programs, initially targeting the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Lebanon and Haiti, Blinken said.
“We hear all these numbers; we’ve all mentioned figures of this growing food insecurity,” Blinken said in Berlin. “But what we know is this: we know those numbers are people, real people, real lives, real livelihoods, mothers, fathers, children. … As humans, we all need to get caught up in this.”
The UN’s World Food Program calculates that eight of the top ten food crises worldwide are primarily caused by conflict – in Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such wars force people from their homes on long desperate treks to safety. They are destroying farms and destroying food distribution systems.
In Latin America, food scarcity is also causing tens of thousands of people to abandon parched or hurricane-destroyed farms and migrate to the United States.
These were the disasters already underway when Russia invaded Ukraine. Now the UN says Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports could cause 40 million more people to go hungry.
“We need to realize that this crisis we are now experiencing is not going to go away in the coming weeks, months,” said Cary Fowler, the government’s special envoy for global food security and the founder of the famed Norway-based “seed vault” that stores thousands of food items. keeps. “We have to… start to see this as an acute crisis that will unfortunately last a few years.”
The world’s famine confrontation intensified in February when Russia invaded its western neighbor Ukraine and blocked ports on the Black Sea. Ukraine exports much of its grain, wheat and other foodstuffs from those ports, which are now under threat from the Russian fleet. The blockade is no small matter – Ukraine is the world’s fifth largest exporter of wheat and maize and a leading supplier of vegetable oil and fertilizers. According to one estimate, there are nearly 25 million tons of grain in Ukrainian silos and warehouses, which are likely to rot.
Attempts to divert supplies overland would be costly and extremely difficult, in part because Ukrainian rail cars would have to be re-equipped to operate in other parts of Europe.
Third-party naval escorts are also largely ruled out as it could lead to a direct conflict with Russia, which is unlikely to end with the quarantine of Ukraine’s ports. Parts of the Black Sea have also been mined by Ukraine, adding another layer of danger.
Some experts argue that the best solution is to arm Ukraine with longer-range artillery and aircraft, such as unmanned MQ-9 Reaper vehicles equipped with precision-guided missiles, so it can take out Russian ships.
“You don’t need the most advanced weapons, but they need the range so they can push the Russians back without risking combat at sea,” said Bryan Clark, a former naval officer and submarine at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based thinktank.
Getting the grain and wheat from Ukraine is only part of the problem. The war destroys fertile fields, disrupts harvests, destroys storage silos and kills farmers. For example, if Russian bombs destroy a farm in eastern Ukraine, there’s a good chance a family in Lebanon, which receives 80% of its grain from Ukraine, will be left without bread, aid workers say.
US officials also say they have “credible” reports that Russia is stealing Ukrainian grain and selling it as its own.
The Kremlin says the food shortages are due to economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and most of the West. US officials are quick to deny that, saying food and fertilizers are exempt from the sanctions.
Higher fuel costs are also hampering efforts to get food where it’s needed, said Martin Frick, head of the UN’s World Food Program in Berlin. His agency’s operating expenses are up $71 million a month; the shipping price of a single container of food or other aid has jumped from $1,000 to $4,000 in recent months, he said.
“The number of people who need our help is skyrocketing,” Frick said in a telephone interview from Berlin, where he is attending the food crisis summit. “The financing is not. We actually have to take food from hungry people and give it to hungry people.”
To feed their populations, he said, countries facing food shortages should return to growing traditional crops — such as lentils in India, millet and sorghum in Africa and quinoa in Latin America — rather than focusing on producing them. more profitable agricultural products such as coffee beans and cotton, both of which are resource-intensive.
Caitlin Welsh, a veteran expert on global food security who heads that program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said hunger and famine have implications for both health and politics.
Hungry people can be angry people, and the rising price of food or fuel has led to coups throughout history. The health effects of starvation can be far-reaching and insidious, Welsh said.
“The sudden rise in prices [of foodstuffs like bread] can cause people to switch from more nutritious foods to items with a lower nutritional value,” she said. And for pregnant women and young children, that can cause lifelong disabilities, Welsh said.