Approaching Famine? The Global Food Shortages Caused by Putin's War
It has been 41 days since the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine, and agriculture executive Alex Lissitsa sighs deeply into the camera of his smartphone. He says that even he doesn’t really know what is left of his company. He is planning on heading out to the fields the next day to take a look, but he has no idea what he is going to find.
An energetic man with a high forehead, Lissitsa attended university in Berlin, the United States and Australia. For the last several years, he has been head of the agricultural company IMC, which is listed on the Warsaw stock exchange. His fields, located to the northeast of Kyiv, primarily produce corn and wheat.
The war is halting critical exports: A farmer stands near a rocket that landed in his field.Foto: Thomas Peter / REUTERS
Following the invasion, Lissitsa headed for the safety of central Ukraine, relocating to his company’s branch office in the city of Poltava in central Ukraine, which is currently home to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled Kharkiv. From there, he maintains contact with colleagues via Telegram and WhatsApp. Before the attack, as they were considering a number of possible scenarios, Lissitsa asked them to print out lists of telephone numbers on paper. "As a digital company," he says, "we thought we would more likely be facing a cyberattack."
But then, company employees wrote him that tanks were rolling through the villages. Workers who would usually be spreading fertilizer at this time of year were manning the checkpoints, while others had sought shelter in their cellars. At some point, Lissitsa had his site manager from Chernihiv on the phone – who told him that they were surrounded, and he was calling to bid farewell.
Two days later, photos showed up in his WhatsApp chat of rockets that had slammed into a storage facility containing 68,000 tons of corn. Meanwhile, hundreds of cattle fell ill and starved to death in a stall located in occupied territory. Then, a laboratory belonging to the country burned up, along with the office next door and a grain silo full of 30,000 tons of wheat.
Lissitsa swallows hard. "I hope that at least half of our fields can still be planted," he says.
There are a number of agronomists in Ukraine who are facing similar difficulties. Farms across the country have had to suspend operations. Fields have gone unplanted because they are covered with mines or destroyed military equipment or because staff has joined the fight. Tons of grain is sitting unused in storage facilities because of a lack of fuel or because roads are unusable, and ports are blocked. In a normal March, Lissitsa says, his country would likely have exported 5 million tons of grain. This year, exports hardly even amounted to 200,000 tons. His own company didn’t export anything at all.
It is a collapse that doesn’t just have consequences for Ukraine. If the agricultural experts are right, it could trigger famine in a number of different corners of the world.
The grain produced by the region’s fertile soil is vital for the global food system. In combination with Russia, whose exports have also collapsed as a result of sanctions, Ukraine covers around 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports and roughly 15 percent of corn and barley exports. And the two countries are responsible for fully two-thirds of all global exports of sunflower oil. According to one study, the two countries produce around 12 percent of all calories consumed in the world.
Hunger Kills Slowly
Now that a significant share of this supply has vanished from the tightly woven global market, it has created a shockwave that can be felt in many areas of the world, including the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, where Lissitsa sends a large share of his harvests. Fewer deliveries are arriving in countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen, which import almost all of their cereals from Ukraine and Russia. Prices could now explode, making food unaffordable for millions of people. Since the beginning of the war, the price of wheat has already risen by 40 percent.
The result, says David Beasley, director of the World Food Program, could exceed anything seen since World War II. WFP relies on Ukrainian cereals to feed roughly half of the 125 million people the organization provides aid to. In an address to the UN Security Council recently, he warned that his organization may soon have to ration food to the hungry to save the starving – and also that the situation could lead to unrest and mass displacement around the world.
"Depending on where I live, that could mean that I’ll have to pay more for food, will have to eat less, or will die because I was already on the brink," says agriculture expert David Laborde from the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has calculated that the number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million if the prices remain high. And the poorest countries of Africa and Asia would very likely be the hardest hit.
A charitable kitchen in Sanaa provides meals to Yemenis during Ramadan.Foto: Yahya Arhab / EPA
Already, every second person living in sub-Saharan Africa has trouble securing sufficient food each day. According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, it wouldn’t take much for the situation to turn into a full-blown catastrophe.
Thus far, though, the calls for help have largely gone unheeded. There are no shocking images making the rounds and no bodies lying in the streets – as there are in Ukraine. And there are no African heads of state regularly appealing to parliaments in the West as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been doing. Hunger is not a war crime, and it doesn’t arrive as suddenly as a shell bursting in one of Lissitsa’s grain silos.
Rather, it kills more slowly. But it has arrived.
It can be seen when a Lebanese school has to suspend meals for its students because no more wheat is arriving in the country. Or when Egypt announces fixed prices for non-subsidized bread in order to slow inflation.
Aid Organizations Cap Rations
"What is happening in Ukraine affects all of us," says Sacdio Osman Roble, a 20-year-old Somali woman who is currently living in a tent camp on the outskirts of Baidoa. The people who have ended up here have nothing: no running water, no electricity and no smartphones. Like most of those here, Roble lived with her three young children in the center of the country and had a field on which, after three years without rain, nothing grew. They were driven away by hunger.
"I fight every day to feed my children," Roble says. Like many in the camp, she spends her days begging in the streets. She stands in front of shops in which not just the bread is twice as expensive as it was just a couple of weeks ago. It’s hard, she says. "My children haven’t had any milk for days. The last thing they’ve had to eat was a couple spoonfuls of rice yesterday evening."
Somalia, which the FAO says receives more than 90 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by the war. Three consecutive years of drought have transformed much of the country’s farmland into a dry crust. More than 2 million people in Somalia had, like Roble, no choice: When they ran out of supplies, they were forced to flee to camps run by the international aid industry.
A staving child in SomaliaFoto:
Joost Bastmeijer / DER SPIEGEL
Almost a third of the Somali population is already suffering from hunger, the FAO estimates. It is forecasted that 1.4 million children will face acute malnutrition this year.
They are abstract numbers that say little about the suffering faced by individuals, but they are enough to keep Rafaël Schneider up at night. Schneider works for the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe and he says that because the food storage facilities belonging to a number of organizations in Somalia are slowly emptying out, they have already been forced to cut rations by 30 percent in some places.
But that’s not all. In countries like Somalia, a large share of the aid is now delivered in the form of cash transfers to those in need. But with the prices skyrocketing, they are able to buy less – and larger monetary transfers aren’t currently an option. Many organizations are currently waiting to see if the amounts pledged by donor states will actually arrive or whether that money will be diverted to Ukraine.
The fight against hunger, as many on the front lines see it, is now a battle for coverage in the media. The fact that the suffering of some is weighed against the suffering of others is one of the perverse aspects of war.
Somalia is just one example of how various local flashpoints combine to form a wildfire. In Ethiopia, it’s the civil war. In South Sudan, it’s the floods. In Lebanon, the economic crisis began as early as 2019. The 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut exacerbated the crisis, one which the World Bank considers historic.
The country's currency has lost around 90 percent of its value in the past two years, and now the pound is plummeting further. Hospitals in many places run on diesel generators because there is no electricity. The Lebanese government, which has to feed not only its own citizens, but also around 1.5 million civil war refugees from Syria, is turning to the U.S. these days for fresh money to buy wheat on the world market.
Having To Choose Food over Medicine
If you spend an afternoon in Bab al-Tabbana, a neighborhood located in Tripoli’s "slum belt,” where people live close together in multistory apartment blocks, you can get a good idea of what it means when bread prices double within a few weeks.
On Tuesday, two neighbors, Hana Ahmad and Ahlam al-Mohamed, are sitting in one of the unheated apartments there. It’s Ramadan, the time of year when everyday life actually slows down, when fasting takes place during the day before families gather in the evening to ceremoniously break the fast.
But for this, Ahmad and Mohamed are now dependent on the help of a charity organization that goes through the neighborhood every evening distributing portions of rice, a little meat and some salad.
"It’s not much,” says Mohamed, whose husband earns about $2 a day as a day laborer in construction. "Sometimes I go to sleep on an empty stomach, so the kids at least get enough to eat.”
Ahmad, who is diabetic, dumps a bag of empty packages of medicine on the floor. She says she can’t afford the pills anymore. She has to set priorities now, and food comes before health.
One crisis is followed by the next: Destroyed grain silos after the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut.Foto: AFP
"Our problem is that we have been saddled with one crisis after the next,” says IFPRI researcher Laborde. Each country has its own history, its own problems and its own crises. Then the coronavirus pandemic came along and crippled global supply chains. Public debt continued to rise, renewed demand caused energy prices to climb, and inflation arrived. FAO’s food price index had catapulted to unprecedented heights even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Are the Chinese Hoarding Wheat?
A major factor in this, agronomists believe, is the discreet wheat-buying spree of the Chinese. Faced with market uncertainty, China declared food security a national priority.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 159 million tons of wheat are stored in reserve in Chinese silos. In order not to panic the markets and drive up prices unnecessarily for his own traders, the Chinese director general of the FAO reportedly even kept a UN paper under wraps that warned of an impending food crisis.
On the day the war began, China’s customs authorities lifted an import ban on Russian wheat that China had imposed because of sanitary concerns. Only days later, the first train with dozens of rail cars rolled across the border.
A grain processing plant in China.Foto:
Zhang Chunlei / Xinhua / IMAGO
There are many who believe that the desired food self-sufficiency isn’t the only goal on leader Xi Jinping’s agenda. Many believe the wheat is also intended to expand China’s influence, including African countries suffering from famine but are rich in natural resources.
The invasion of Ukraine, it seems, is not only shaking up the balance of power in the world. It is also partially suspending the laws of capitalism.
In normal times, companies would respond to shortages and high prices by investing and ramping up production. The greater supply would eventually ensure that prices would slowly fall again. But this up-and-down market, which recurs in cycles, no longer seems to be working.
A Shortage of Fertilizer
Russia is not only one of the largest exporters of grain – it is also one of the most important producers of all artificial fertilizers used worldwide. This means that fertilizers are also currently in short supply as a result of the sanctions. For the remaining stocks still available on the world market, prices are being demanded that are causing many wheat producers to hesitate.
Smaller producers in particular are putting their production on hold because they lack the funds to invest. Others are reducing their acreage or fertilizing less, resulting in smaller or sometimes lower-quality crops that further tighten supply.
In Germany, the government has opened up environmentally protected areas for the cultivation of grain, and many are hoping that countries like Argentina will step into the breach and increase their wheat exports.
Argentina is the largest wheat producer in Latin America. In theory, says farmer Mariano Otamendi, he and fellow cultivators have "optimal conditions” to rapidly expand their capacity during the crisis. "Our operations are highly mechanized,” says Otamendi.
But the farmer, who runs a 200-year-old family business with his brother in the hinterland of Buenos Aires, nonetheless shrugs it off. "For us Argentines, there’s just no incentive,” he says. "And it’s not just because of high fertilizer prices.”
A Yemeni worker carrying a bag of flour in Sanaa.Foto: Mohammed Huwais / AFP
To cap inflation, the Argentine government has frozen prices. Whereas a ton of wheat currently trades for around $400 on the global market, it changes hand for less than half of that in Argentina. Otamendi says that 95 percent of the export quotas set by the government for this crop are already exhausted.
Meanwhile, says agricultural researcher Laborde, it is hardly likely that China will suddenly offer its reserves on the world market. He is calling on policymakers to crack down on hoarding to avoid artificially fueling the shortage.
As China triggers new chain reactions by halting fertilizer exports, grain wholesalers in Ukraine are looking for solutions to absorb the loss of their ports, through which 90 percent of exports normally pass.
They are now working to export the wheat released by the Agricultural Ministry by rail, but this is difficult, says one trader, because there are bottlenecks at the border stations. The rail gauges in Poland and Romania are also different from those in Ukraine. Right now, the evacuation of civilians is being given the priority. It’s only possible to get a few containers through each day.
The World Food Program in Somalia has just received the last shipload of shelled peas that left the port of Odessa in February, and it doesn’t know when the next ship will arrive. Many experts are calling for a radical rethink to avoid pitting one crisis against another.
Scientists like Benjamin Bodirsky, who researches global food systems at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research believe the food production is sufficient. For example, he says, it shouldn’t be the case that 60 percent of the grain produced in Germany is fed to animals.
Previously Unavailable Aid Suddenly Opens Up
Others, who have been fighting hunger for years, are scratching their heads with regard to Ukraine right now and how uncomplicated it can be to organize help. They are wondering how all these budgets are suddenly appearing that they were always told didn’t exist. And about the open borders. About what is suddenly possible when there is a political will to help.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 16/2022 (April 16th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
Alex Lissitsa, the Ukrainian agricultural manager, is especially concerned about corn. It has no value in a silo. If it were left to sit there because of the closed ports, he says, he would lack the money to buy fertilizers and seed for the next season.
Lissitsa is still wearing his weatherproof jacket when he gets in touch from Kyiv. At 4 a.m. in the morning, he left for his inspection tour of the fields. He says he didn’t get very far because the roads were still closed, but he was at least able to have a meeting with staff. They decided at the meeting that they should start with the spring planting. They have to complete the process by the middle of May, because otherwise the soil will become too dry and too hard. "It’s going to be a battle against time,” Lissitsa says.
With additional reporting by Jana Dhaybi and Hussein Mohammad
Editor's note: An earlier version of this text stated in a quote that Ukraine exports 5 million tons of wheat. In fact, it exports 5 million tons of grain. In another passage, we have clarified the timing of the spring sowing.