NEW YORK - Global food insecurity has reached levels not seen since the financial crisis of 2008, and it’s only going to get worse without aggressive intervention, a food insecurity expert told the United Nations Security Council this week.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine "did not start a food security crisis," but it did add "fuel to a fire that was long burning," said Sara Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, a global company that uses artificial intelligence and public and private data to predict food supply trends.
"This isn’t cyclical. This is seismic," Menker said during a special meeting of the UN Security Council. "Even if the war were to end tomorrow, our food security problem isn’t going away anytime soon without concerted action."
Before the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, the two countries supplied a combined one third of the world’s wheat exports and were in the top five exporters of corn. Coupled with widespread fertilizer shortages, supply chain issues and record droughts, the world has about 10 weeks worth of wheat on hand, Menker said.
Sara Menker, founder and chief executive officer of Gro Intelligence Inc., speaks during the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Photographer: Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images
"Without aggressive global actions, we stand the risk of an extraordinary amount of human suffering and economic damage," Menker said.
What’s causing global food insecurity?
A man carries a sack of wheat during a food distribution in Ataye, Ethiopia, (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Menker said the global food crisis can be attributed to five factors "occurring simultaneously." Combined, they’re creating "unprecedented" challenges that will impact the world’s supply of food for several years.
- Lack of fertilizer: Fertilizer prices have nearly tripled over the past year — and quadrupled over the past two years — Menker said, thanks to supply chain issues, restrictions on natural gas and export restrictions amid the Russia-Ukraine war. The fertilizer shortage could significantly reduce crop yields for big suppliers like the United States, Brazil and western Europe later this year and into next year, "severely impacting global food security and inflation for three-to-five years at a minimum," Menker said.
- Climate change: Global drought conditions for wheat are the worst they’ve been in 20 years around the world, Menker said. "Major breadbaskets" like the U.S. and Brazil, the world’s two largest exporters of agricultural product, are also experiencing extreme droughts.
- Cooking oil shortage: The price of palm oil has nearly tripled in the last two years, Menker said, and the world has lost 75% of sunflower oil exports to the war in Ukraine. China has also notably increased the amount of cooking oil it imports.
- Grain shortage: Russia and Ukraine accounted for a third of the world’s wheat exports before the conflict began. Now, the world is seeing record low grain levels on top of fertilizer shortages, supply chain issues and droughts.
- Supply chain/logistical bottlenecks: Supply chain issues created by the pandemic have been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war. "All Ukrainian ports remain closed, making it impossible to move any of Ukraine’s harvested grain across its borders," Menker said. "Shifting to rail will move less than 10% of pre-war flow. It’s not enough."
"It’s a once-in-a-generation occurrence that can dramatically reshape the geopolitical era," Menker said. "We cannot solve food insecurity on a national scale anywhere. While the next few years will likely be difficult, we can coordinate a global response."
War threatens global food supply
Russia claims the 10,000-plus sanctions the country is facing for its aggression toward Ukraine have disrupted routes, impeded Russian vessels from delivering goods and restricted commercial transactions because of banking difficulties.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said those claims are false.
"The decision to weaponize food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone," Blinken said. "Sanctions aren’t blocking Black Sea ports, trapping ships filled with food, and destroying Ukrainian roads and railways; Russia is. Sanctions are not emptying Ukrainian grain silos and stealing Ukrainian farm equipment; Russia is."
Blinken said sanctions imposed by the U.S. and many others aren’t preventing Russia from exporting food and fertilizers because they exempt exports of food, fertilizer and seeds. "And we’re working with countries every day to ensure that they understand that sanctions do not prevent the flow of these items," he said.
U.N. food chief David Beasley warned the Security Council that the war in Ukraine has created "an unprecedented crisis" of escalating food prices that are already sparking protests and riots and growing hunger. The crisis could add at least 47 million people to the 276 million "marching to starvation" before Russia’s invasion of its smaller neighbor.
The executive director of the World Food Program said 49 million people in 43 countries are already "knocking on famine’s door."
Beasley recalled that when food prices got out of control in 2007 and 2008 over 40 countries faced political unrest, riots and protests.
"We are already seeing riots and protesting taking place as we speak — Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru," he said. "We’ve seen destabilizing dynamics already in the Sahel from Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad. These are only signs of things to come."
Beasley urged world leaders to do everything possible "to bring the markets to stability because things will get worse."
This story was reported from Seattle. The Associated Press contributed.