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Immediately after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic in 2020, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) had warned about the world facing its worst food crisis in five decades. More than two years of an ongoing pandemic have hampered people’s ability to harvest their land.

Increasing unemployment and loss of income has also reduced their purchasing power while global food prices are climbing at a frightening rate. Over and above, the Ukraine Crisis has now made the global food crisis cataclysmic.

In 2015, the world had committed to zero hunger as one of its Sustainable Development Goals. But, since then, the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition has increased. Besides, the pandemic, the growing population, devastating climate change, and rising violent conflicts worldwide have further exacerbated the global hunger and nutrition crisis.

More than 811 million people remain hungry worldwide, and the number is growing. From 2019 to 2020, undernourished people increased by almost 161 million.

Climate risk regions

Many of these people suffering from extreme food insecurity are in countries in South Asia, the Sahel and Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. These countries are not only in the high climate risk regions but also either facing armed conflict or struggling to come out of it. Conflicts create food crises, and food crises also can lead to political instability.

The Global Network Against Food Crises says the conflict has already become the primary diver of acute food insecurity for almost 100 million people in 23 countries/territories worldwide. Several worst-affected food-insecure countries are struggling with protracted conflicts.

Just before the Ukraine crisis, the FAO and the World Food Program (WFP) had warned that acute food insecurity would worsen further in 20 countries in the first half of 2022, calling them hunger hotspots.

Targeted humanitarian action

Organised violence or conflict is the primary and weather extremes are the significant drivers of acute hunger in these countries. In the estimation of FAO and WFP, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen are countries of highest concern, and Afghanistan, CAR, DRC, Haiti, Honduras, Sudan, and Syria are of particular concern.

The international community was needed to take targeted humanitarian action in these hunger hotspots to prevent starvation and death.

While the world is facing this critical food insecurity quagmire, the Ukraine crisis has made it almost impossible for it to face it. The humanitarian crisis and massive population displacement threaten to make Ukraine another hunger hotspot.

Moreover, Ukraine is called the breadbasket of Europe, and Russia is the major supplier of farming nutrients like potash and phosphate to the world. The crisis has brought significant disruption to food production and the global food supply chain.

The sanction regime on Russia has led to a further spike in fertiliser prices. If the ongoing situation continues, it will be almost impossible to make fertiliser available to farmers. The agricultural production of most of the key crops could drop by 50 per cent if farmers cannot afford to use fertiliser.

The economic sanctions usually create a hunger crisis in target countries, as the world had witnessed in Iraq and Haiti. However, the economic sanctions against Russia have the potential to develop a global hunger crisis.

High food insecurity

Ukraine is the fourth-largest exporter of corn. Many poor developing countries with high food insecurity in Asia and Africa import corn from Ukraine and Russia.

Moreover, Ukraine is also the world’s biggest exporter of sunflower oil. Russia and Ukraine together account for almost 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and barley export, nearly 20 per cent of corn export, and more than 80 per cent sunflower export. The agricultural export of these two countries constitutes 12 per cent of all the food calories traded globally.

The global food prices had reached an all-time high even before the Ukraine crisis, and three weeks after its escalation, the global wheat and corn procurement prices have gone up significantly. Food insecure countries in the South are seriously struggling with the increased food grain prices, as the price rise threatens to aggravate the hunger crisis in those countries further and is likely to exacerbate their political instability.

The WFP, being at the forefront of a global war against hunger, buys more than half of its food grains from Russia and Ukraine. The rising food prices and the disruption of the supply chain severely limit its reach and efficacy to get food to the needy.

Even if the armed conflict does not spread beyond Ukraine and ends soon, its devastating impact could be global and long-term. The Ukraine crisis will push millions of people into poverty and force millions more in the conflict-ravaged hunger hotspot countries to survive severe food insecurity.