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As war rages in Ukraine, how do we mitigate the looming global food crisis?

Associated Press/Farah Abdi Warsameh
Somalis who fled drought-stricken areas sit at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu, Somalia on Feb. 4, 2022. The aid agency Oxfam International warned that widespread hunger across East Africa could become “a catastrophe” without an injection of funds to the region’s most vulnerable communities.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, its effects are beginning to ripple across the globe and threaten lives in countries that already have encountered the worst economic fallout from the pandemic. World food prices reached their highest-ever levels in March and could rise by up to 20 percent this year, pushing as many as 13 million more people into hunger. Congress this week moved to act quickly on a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, including international food security assistance beyond President Biden’s request, which was insufficient to meet rising needs.

I recently returned from Lebanon where, because of economic collapse in recent years, bread has become one of the few affordable foods. Lebanon imports most of its wheat from Ukraine and since the war started the price of bread has jumped more than 30 percent. If the government doesn’t find alternative suppliers, poorer families likely will go hungry, including the large population of Syrian refugees there

The war also threatens to wipe out alternative agricultural income sources. In Lebanon, I met people who had moved from urban to rural areas to pursue farming when economic collapse drained all employment opportunities from cities. Mercy Corps, the organization I lead, is facilitating educational and technical training for those in the agricultural sector, but these new farmers will face additional headwinds: limited and more expensive fertilizer imports are increasing production costs as Russia, the world’s largest fertilizer exporter, suspends fertilizer exports.

As in Lebanon, Somalia also imports most of its wheat from Ukraine. Our team there has seen the price of staple goods such as cooking oil, beans, rice, sugar and flour nearly double since the start of the war in February. In one location, they found that the price of fertilizer has increased by a staggering 75 percent. This couldn’t come at a worse time, since millions in Somalia face life-threatening drought that could worsen in the coming months if seasonal rains fail, a distinct possibility between now and June. According to the latest reports from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, 6 million Somalis, or almost 40 percent of the population, are now facing extreme levels of food insecurity.

With these life-threatening repercussions already happening in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities, what can be done to avert catastrophe?

First, we need to make sure the outpouring of global support for Ukraine doesn’t come at the cost of other crises around the world. At recent international pledging conferences for Yemen and Afghanistan, donors provided just a fraction of what was needed (one-third for Yemen, and half for Afghanistan) while the United Nations’s $1.1 billion funding appeal for Ukraine quickly reached nearly 70 percent. When I testified before the U.S. Senate this week, I urged the passage of a $5 billion supplemental funding package to shore up U.S. global food assistance.

Second, with the disruption of food supply chains around the world, it is time to increase efforts to support local agriculture by providing smallholder farmers the information, financial and regulatory support they need. National governments should monitor how price shocks for food and agricultural inputs are impacting farmers during critical periods of this year’s planting and harvest cycle. In Northwest Syria, where our team recently reported prices of essential food have already increased up to 67 percent in some regions, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation has launched initiatives to subsidize inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. Multilateral organizations, global financial institutions and donors — including the U.S. government — must provide coordinated support and resourcing for this kind of swift action at a national and local level.

Third, we have a window to move toward a greener agenda in which high fuel and chemical fertilizer prices may make new solutions more economically attractive. This could reduce emissions and help agricultural communities that are facing the worst fallout of the climate crisis become more prepared to handle future shocks. Now is the time to support the world’s farmers to pursue more regenerative practices, such as replacing chemical fertilizers with biofertilizers, solar irrigation instead of fuel pumps, and more efficient, less fuel-dependent transportation for agricultural goods. This can be made possible by working with the private sector to develop the shift to long-term market solutions and by working with local governments to ensure a favorable regulatory environment. 

The Ukraine war continues to illuminate the interconnectedness of our world and shows us that upheaval in any region can accelerate change for everyone, for better or worse. This must be a clarion call for the U.S. and global community to step up — not only for the people of Ukraine in their most harrowing hour, but also the tens of millions of people who will struggle to survive the global fallout. 

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna is the CEO of Mercy Corps, a global aid and development organization working in more than 40 countries. During the Obama administration, she served as deputy coordinator of development for Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, and as assistant to the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security in Washington.

Tags global food crisis Joe Biden Lebanon Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine wheat

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