Russia's War in Ukraine Threatens Starvation for the World's Poor

Global hunger declined for decades before pandemic policies and Russia’s invasion broke the world.


"War is the health of the State," Randolph Bourne wrote at the time of the First World War during which governments assumed bloated power, though sometimes at the expense of their own existence. But if war gives the state a boost, it's usually civilians who suffer the most as their prosperity and lives wither away. We're reminded of that awful dynamic right now as Russia's invasion of Ukraine exacerbates hunger in a world in which supply chains had already been disrupted by pandemic policies. It's a shock coming as it does just a few years after people celebrated the global growth of plenty.

"Information from the latest month between October 2022 and January 2023 for which food price inflation data are available shows high inflation in almost all low- and middle-income countries, with inflation levels above 5% in 83.3% of low-income countries, 90.2% of lower-middle-income countries, and 91% of upper-middle-income countries and many experiencing double-digit inflation," the World Bank warned February 13. "The countries affected most are in Africa, North America, Latin America, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia."

At fault are multiple factors, including weather and "global economic slowdowns" and commodity costs that can largely be attributed to pandemic policies that reduced people's buying power across the board. But the World Bank emphasized "the impact of the war in Ukraine on spring planting" as well as trade restrictions by governments panicked about the war's disruption of food supply. "As of December 2022, 19 countries have implemented 23 food export bans, and eight have implemented 12 export-limiting measures."

Almost simultaneous with the World Bank announcement, Ukraine's government cautioned that limited access to fertilizers threatened a sharply reduced grain harvest for the coming year. That's concerning given that officials had already revealed that grain production "dropped to 65 million tonnes in the latest crop season from 108 million tonnes a year earlier." Less grain grown meant less grain and wheat exported—28 percent less last year, after Russia's invasion, from the previous year, reports the country's Agriculture Ministry. Given that Ukraine was responsible for 9 percent of all wheat exports in 2020 and 13 percent of all exported corn as per MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity (Russia, the aggressor in the war and subject to sanctions, is responsible for 20 percent of wheat exports as well as a major portion of the supply of fertilizer inputs) that has severe consequences.

"A record 349 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity – up from 287 million in 2021," according to the UN-affiliated World Food Programme. "This constitutes a staggering rise of 200 million people compared to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. More than 900,000 people worldwide are fighting to survive in famine-like conditions."

"Events in Ukraine are further proof of how conflict feeds hunger – forcing people out of their homes, wiping out their sources of income and wrecking countries' economies," the organization added.

Again, not all of this catastrophe is the result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Lockdowns, production disruptions, money-supply inflation, border controls and other government interventions related to COVID-19 responses played an enormously damaging role in setting the world back. But the war, and its specific participants, have made things much worse.

"An enduring global food crisis has become one of the farthest-reaching consequences of Russia's war, contributing to widespread starvation, poverty and premature deaths," Edward Wong and Ana Swanson noted at The New York Times in January.

It's not as if the destructive impact of war on the availability of food is a recent revelation. Historically, drafting farmers away from their work resulted in neglected herds and fields. Families left behind then fled from marauding armies. And stealing what you can carry and burning the rest has always been a fairly effective means of feeding troops while hurting the enemy.

"Unanimously adopting resolution 2417 (2018), the Council drew attention to the link between armed conflict and conflict‑induced food insecurity and the threat of famine," the UN Security Council acknowledged six years ago. "It called on all parties to armed conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians and on taking care to spare civilian objects, stressing that armed conflicts, violations of international law and related food insecurity could be drivers of forced displacement." It was a nice thought, with roughly the same mix of good intentions and impotence as so many such resolutions.

No matter how you consider it, this is grim news. It's worse, though, when you remember that hunger was declining just a few years ago. There was even talk about ending it as a concern and leaving inadequate access to food as a rare calamity.

"The number of hungry people in the world has dropped to 795 million – 216 million fewer than in 1990-92," the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization announced in 2015. "In the developing regions, the prevalence of undernourishment – which measures the proportion of people who are unable to consume enough food for an active and healthy life – has declined to 12.9 percent of the population, down from 23.3 percent a quarter of a century ago."

But that progress has been halted and reversed by interference in the international trade networks that brought prosperity and reliable nutrition to much of the world and by the ravages of war. The result has been increases in food prices for pretty much everybody. "Food-at-home prices increased by 11.4 percent in 2022," reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with even higher hikes for Europe. That's alarming for prosperous countries, but it's utterly disastrous for people elsewhere who often live hand-to-mouth.

The last week has seen protests over food prices in places including Bermuda, Morocco, and Suriname.

"The world is rich and will become still richer," the economist Deirdre McCloskey wrote in 2016 before governments screwed things up. She gave the credit to "liberalism, in the free-market European sense. Give masses of ordinary people equality before the law and equality of social dignity, and leave them alone, and it turns out that they become extraordinarily creative and energetic."

That was true right up until politicians, once again, stopped leaving people alone. And there is no more dramatic or destructive means of not leaving people alone than by waging war on a neighboring country, thereby disrupting its people's ability to make a living and sell the results of their labors.

Maybe, in the future, we'll get back to peace, free markets, and free trade. Then we'll again enjoy the prosperity and full bellies they bring us.