Dozens of countries risk protests, riots and political violence this year as food prices surge around the world, the head of the food-aid branch of the United Nations has warned.
Speaking in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Thursday, David Beasley, director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said the world faced “frightening” shortages that could destabilise countries that depend on wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia.
“Even before the Ukraine crisis, we were facing an unprecedented global food crisis because of Covid and fuel price increases,” said Beasley. “Then, we thought it couldn’t get any worse, but this war has been devastating.”
Ukraine grows enough food every year to feed 400 million people. It produces 42% of the world’s sunflower oil, 16% of its maize and 9% of its wheat. Somalia relies on Ukraine and Russia for all of its wheat imports, while Egypt gets 80% of its grain from the two countries.
The WFP sources 40% of the wheat for its emergency food-relief programmes from Ukraine and, after its operating costs rose by $70m (£58m) a month, it has been forced to halve rations in several countries.
Citing increases in the price of shipping, fertiliser and fuel as key factors – due to Covid-19, the climate crisis and the Ukraine war – Beasley said the number of people suffering from “chronic hunger” had risen from 650 million to 810 million in the past five years.
Beasley added that the number of people experiencing “shock hunger” had increased from 80 million to 325 million over the same period. They are classified as living in crisis levels of food insecurity, a term he described as “marching towards starvation and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from”.
Beasley said that after the economic crash of 2007-09, riots and other unrest erupted in 48 countries around the world as commodity prices and inflation rose.
“The economic factors we have today are much worse than those we saw 15 years ago,” he said, adding that if the crisis was not addressed, it would result in “famine, destabilisation of nations and mass migration”.
“We are already seeing riots in Sri Lanka and protests in Tunisia, Pakistan and Peru, and we’ve had destabilisation take place in places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad,” said Beasley. “This is only a sign of things to come.”
Ukraine’s agriculture ministry says more than 20m tonnes of grain that would normally be exported is trapped in the country because of Russia’s blockade of its Black Sea ports.
European leaders, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have urged Russia to ease its blockade of Odesa, Ukraine’s main port, to allow exports of grain.
In the long term, Beasley called on the world’s richest people to commit more of their wealth to tackling global hunger, while also urging Vladimir Putin to open up Odesa.
“It is a very, very frightening time,” said Beasley. “We are facing hell on earth if we do not respond immediately. The best thing we can do right now is end that damn war in Russia and Ukraine and get the port open.”