Russia's invasion of Ukraine not only endangers the lives of Ukrainian citizens. The war is also on track to lead to an increase in severe malnutrition and even starvation around the world.

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That's the grim assessment of many global food security experts, who point to how much the rest of the world depends on Ukraine and Russia for wheat and a host of other essentials. If this supply is interrupted, it will drive up food prices, which are already at record highs - at a time when the economic fallout from the pandemic has already weighed on household budgets, most devastatingly in developing countries. low income.

"To be honest, I'm very worried," said Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme. “The Ukrainians are in a catastrophic situation and are fighting for their lives. But this disaster goes beyond borders. It will also affect people thousands of miles away.

To find out just how bad things could get, NPR spoke with Husain as well as another prominent analyst, Joseph Faithr, senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR). Glauber and Husain described alarming scenarios. But they also outlined concrete actions the world could take to ensure the worst does not happen. Here are six takeaways:

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  1. The challenge of timing
    While a military conflict in Ukraine would still impact global food supplies, says WFP's Husain, "the timing of this unnecessary, unwanted and unjustified war could not have been worse."

Take the cost of the meal. Over the past year, major commodity prices have reached their highest levels since the peaks of 2008-2012. At the time, the tension caused civil unrest around the world, particularly in the hard-hit Middle East and North Africa. notes Glauber of IFPRI.

Food prices have increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. Above: Edith Obatuga (right), who is raising her two children and four nieces and nephews, shops at a market in Lagos, Nigeria.
Benson Ibeabuchi/AFP via Getty Images
The reasons for this current drop in prices are multiple. But this is largely related to the reduction in supply. Droughts have recently affected wheat crops in North America and soybeans and corn in South America. Typhoons in Malaysia last year reduced the harvest of palm oil, which is used for cooking, among other things. The bottom line, says Glauber, is, “It's not like [the war in Ukraine] will come when we're overwhelmed with grain reserves and things like that. The prices were high.

Human costs have also increased. "After decades of declining percentages of the world's undernourished population, we've actually seen an increase in the percentage over the past four or five years," says Glauber. Husain notes that around 276 million people worldwide are currently in the midst of a hunger crisis – 44 million of them “one step away from starvation”. If we cannot help them, they will die. As simple as that."

Then there are the effects of the pandemic. "I think the worst is probably it's happening in the time of COVID," Husain says. “Many people in many parts of the world have lost their jobs. You don't have the income. You don't have the buying power. Now they face inflation on top of that. You will be crushed on both sides."

Many governments are also now less resilient economically after spending two years dipping into their coffers to soften the economic blow of COVID on their citizens, adds Husain. “People are in demand. And governments are exploited.

2. A long list of affected products
In recent years, Ukraine and Russia have become "an important driver" for global food security, says Glauber. In an analysis, he and a few colleagues found that the various agricultural products exported by the two countries account for about 12% of the calories traded globally.

Much of it is due to wheat. Ukraine alone accounts for more than 10% of the global market, says Glauber. If you add Russia, the share rises to more than 30%.

But it does not stop there. Both countries are also an important source of cereals such as corn and barley, which are mainly used as livestock feed. For example, Ukraine supplies around 15% of the world's production

3. Multiple paths to disaster
There are a number of reasons why the supply of all of these products could dry up.

The most obvious risk concerns Ukrainian exports. "The good news," says Glauber, is that most of the wheat from Ukraine's last crop has already been shipped out of the country. Yet, he says, around 30% are still waiting to be transported. This is also the case for around 45% of the corn harvest. “Now the ports are closed,” he says. So a key question is how long will it stay that way.

Another test will take place in April, when corn, barley and sunflower seeds are expected to start growing – largely in areas where the Russian military is currently encroaching. This summer will be another crucial period. Then the next great wheat harvest should take place.

Russia's cultivation and harvest does not face the same disruptions as Ukraine's. And the sanctions do not currently directly target Russian food exports. But the war could still cause major disruptions.

Husain notes that two major shipping companies have already refused to do business with Russia. "If you're corrupt, no one will do business with you, even if it's legal," he says. And if just one element of the export process is affected, the impact can be huge. "The supply chain network is so complicated that if someone sneezes in one place, someone else catches a cold somewhere else," says Husain.

Sudanese people buy bread at a bakery in Khartoum on October 11, 2021. The country has suffered shortages of wheat and other basic necessities due to the closure of Port Sudan during the protests.

4) A long list of vulnerable countries
In the short term, it appears that the countries most likely to be affected by a disruption in exports from Ukraine and Russia are those that currently source a large portion of their imports from these two countries. For example, in their analysis, Glauber and his co-authors found that Egypt is one of several countries that get more than about half of their calories imported from Ukraine and Russia. Other heavily dependent countries of concern to food security professionals include Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen.

But Glauber and Husain both point out that it won't be long before prices start to rise, even in countries that don't currently source wheat, corn or other raw materials directly from Ukraine. or Russia, because global commodity markets are so closely interconnected. “Any disturbance that occurs in one place affects another place,” says Husain.

A vendor at a market in Sanaa, the war-torn Yemeni capital, on February 28, 2022. Ukraine supplies grain to many countries in the Middle East; Russia's invasion of Ukraine could mean less bread on the table in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images
Another way to gauge where the impact will be most severe is to look at countries that are heavily dependent on any of the vulnerable commodities, regardless of their current source. Faithr says he worries about Bangladesh, for example, because it relies heavily on fertilizers – and because its government is already making efforts to subsidize farmers hit by current price hikes.

Husain also says that since every country is likely to feel the stress, he worries most about those who are "already struggling" when it comes to food crises. Sadly, he adds: "It's a long list. I mean, there are 38 countries where people are facing famine emergencies.

5. Throwing money at the would work
As depressing as all of this sounds, Glauber and Husain both point to a bright spot: Even without the loss of Ukraine and Russia's food supply contributions, there would technically still be enough left to feed the world. In other words, the only problem will be the increase in the price of these foods. Again, this suggests that the immediate solution will be monetary. "Someone has to pay for these higher costs," says Glauber. So if governments and other donors can close the gap between what people can afford and new higher food prices, people won't go hungry.