Hunger and War: How the Russian War on Ukraine Threatens Global Food Security

By Caitlin Hoyland, GLOBUS correspondant

Food insecurity is incurred upon regions afflicted by conflict. This is obvious. Conflict ravages food crops, destroys infrastructure and transport links, and destabilises food markets. In turn, regions enduring food insecurity are vulnerable to outbreaks of conflict. Hunger and conflict are oppressive forces which reinforce one another in a vicious cycle. This vicious cycle impacts everyone, but countries in the Global South are impacted most devastatingly.  

The Russian invasion and war on Ukraine jeopardise the food security of all countries across the world.  

Food exports from Russia and Ukraine account for over ten percent of the total calories traded globally. Russia and Ukraine together contribute to almost a third of global wheat exports, a fifth of exported corn, and eighty percent of exports of sunflower oil. These are three of the most essential ingredients in almost all foods that we enjoy daily.  

The subsidised food made available to many people in the Global South is exported from Ukraine. For example, over forty percent of Ukraine’s wheat and maize exports go to countries in the Middle East and Africa. These are regions that experience severe food insecurity.  

Moreover, Russia is the largest exporter of fertiliser in the world. Most of Russia’s fertiliser is exported to Brazil as a vital proponent of Brazil’s production of corn. Brazil is the third largest producer of corn in the world. Without fertiliser, the corn crops will fail.  

Another consequence of the Russian war on Ukraine has been the dramatic rise in oil prices. This causes a rise in transportation costs, therefore pushing up the costs of all products, including food. In the UK, food price inflation reached over four percent in February. For context, a 500g tub of margarine that would have cost you an average of £1.27 in January 2021, would now cost you almost 60p more – a forty percent increase! Moreover, if foods are not able to be transported, they risk going to waste and adding to food shortages.  

Our food system is an unstable system which reinforces the inequalities established during colonialism. The instability of the system means that food shortages in one area have catastrophic global repercussions, but the effects are far graver for people experiencing poverty. 

But why is our food system so fragile?  

The dominant food system follows a neoliberal, globalised model. Neoliberalism advocates that free, globalized markets are more efficient than governments at controlling market forces. However, the reality of this approach is that it encourages monopolisation, allowing a minority of powerful transnational corporations (TNCs) to saturate markets. The neoliberal policies that shape our food system locks countries into dependencies upon one another. This interdependency makes countries in the Global South especially vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful TNCs dominating and controlling our food markets.  

We can see this in play when the United States enforced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) upon Mexico in 1994. The NAFTA required Mexico to accept imports of overproduced, subsidized corn from the United States. Consequently, small-scale corn producers in Mexico were displaced from their work and forced off their land. Between 1994 and 2004, nearly 1.3 million farm jobs were lost. There were devastating repercussions for labourers in the United States too. It became cheaper for businesses to source labour from abroad so many manufacturing labourers in the United States lost their jobs. A rise in unemployment always results in a wage suppression, which impacts nearly all workers. Consumers and corporations located in the Global North benefited from the NAFTA at the expense of labourers and agricultural workers.   

During times of conflict, the interdependencies within the food system are weaponised by the dominant powers and used as a war tactic. That is, hunger is artificially imposed by world powers and used as a weapon of war. An example of this would be the blockades imposed upon Cuba by the US government during the 1953-1958 US war against Fidel Castro’s administration. Denying money and supplies to Cuba was a strategy used by Eisenhower’s administration tobring about hunger, desperation, and finally a dissolution of support for Castro amongst Cuban people. The consequences of these blockades are still endured in Cuba today. 

Hunger and conflict are cyclical violent forces of oppression. Implicated within these violent forces is our current global food system. Our food system allows powerful actors to use food as a weapon with which to manipulate political and economic situations for their own gains. Consider the threat that this poses to the marginalised groups in conflict affected areas, including occupied Palestine, occupied Kashmir, Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, and Ukraine.  

The Russian war on Ukraine is causing civilian casualties across the world, caused by direct conflict and by the hunger that ensues.   

Header image by Evi Radauscher, via Unsplash.

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