The war in Ukraine is a catastrophe for that country and for the world. In any crisis it is the most vulnerable that will be most affected, and this time it is no different. Women, children and the elderly in Ukraine are suffering terribly in the country, with many fleeing the conflict as refugees. Tragically, women, children and the elderly in many other parts of the world will experience the effects of the war too. This is because this crisis comes on top of two others. Pre-war, the most vulnerable had already been pushed to the limit by COVID-19 and climate change. This led to unprecedented annual rises in hunger and malnutrition. The current crisis will worsen things considerably, not only within Ukraine, obviously, but also outside it, because Ukraine is a key exporter of wheat, maize and sunflowers and because Russia is a key exporter of oil, gas, food and the key mineral nutrients needed for fertilizers.
The loss of food production and exports from Ukraine (and to some extent Russia) will push world food prices up as the lack of supply fails to meet demand. High energy prices due to the loss of production, trade and the sanctions imposed will do the same, making food production, distribution and preparation more costly. Higher food and fuel prices will lower people’s income for other necessities such as clean water, sanitation and health care. Pre-war, food prices were already at the highest levels since 1975. Now, they will rise even further. If we do not act, the number of people experiencing hunger will likely rise towards one billion and the number of people that are at risk of malnutrition will likely rise to half of the world’s population. We must now seriously contemplate the ugly prospect of famine in many places in the world. Decisive action is needed, but what?
First, obviously, end the war, so that the immediate suffering of the Ukrainian people can begin to be addressed. This will also allow Ukrainian farmers to get back to their fields in the next month or two for planting season and it will allow the rest of us to support them. It will also allow supply chains critical for food to begin to be rebuilt.
Second, keep food trade flowing. Exporting countries must resist the temptation to “beggar thy neighbour” by hoarding exports, that simply leads to a race to the bottom for all.
Third, diversify food production sites around the world: the war has shown the fragility of depending on a few breadbaskets: there need to be many. For example, Africa has immense agricultural potential, but the Malabo agricultural investment and policy targets its governments have set for themselves are not being met.
Fourth, the amount of overseas development finance directed at ending hunger needs to double: public and private. We have never known so much about where and what to invest in to get hunger numbers down from 768 million today to less than 200 million by 2030. We know what to do, now we need to fund it. The G7 hosted by the German Government is an excellent opportunity to make such commitments.
Finally, we need more money for humanitarian hunger and malnutrition relief. The increased funding requests from the World Food Program and others must be met rapidly. But we also need more relief from existing money: humanitarian aid needs to do more to provide not just food, but nutritious and safe food containing the micronutrients that are so essential for human development. Most importantly, we must protect the nutrition status of the very youngest and deny the Ukraine war a terrible intergenerational legacy.