Three weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the war began to have devastating effects not only on the land, but in many countries affecting Ukraine’s important wheat production. The United Nations has warned of a “cyclone of hunger” that is already beginning to be felt in North Africa. France 24 takes a closer look.
On March 14, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a stark warning about the broader threats of war in Ukraine: world hunger. “We must do everything we can to avoid a hurricane of hunger and a collapse of the global food system,” he said.
The comment echoed a similar concern expressed by David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, just a few days ago: “The bullets and bombs in Ukraine could take the global hunger crisis to catastrophic levels. He said that supply chains and food prices will be significantly affected.”
Ukraine, along with southwestern Russia, has long been known as the “breadbasket of Europe” thanks to the region’s rich dark soil, Chernozem, which is among the most fertile in the world. The region accounts for “about 15 percent of the world’s wheat production, and about 30 percent of global exports,” says Sebastien Abbes, a researcher at the French Institute for International Affairs and Strategy (IRIS) and director of the Demeter Klopp Research Center, which specializes in global agricultural issues, as He told France 24.
“But it’s not just about wheat, the two countries account for 80 percent of the world’s sunflower oil production, and Ukraine is the fourth largest exporter of corn in the world,” Apis said.
As fighting continued in Ukraine and the Russian offensive intensified along the Black Sea coast, these important crop producers were cut off from the world. “Nothing is leaving the Ukrainian ports anymore, and it is impossible to know what the country can produce and harvest in the coming months,” Apis explained.
He said the conflict had already had dire consequences for Ukrainians “who are struggling to find food amid the bullets”. But it also raises concerns for many countries that depend on Ukrainian wheat and are increasingly concerned that they will soon no longer be able to feed their people.
Catastrophic shortages Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are already starting to feel the pinch of the wheat shortage. “Maghreb countries rely heavily on Ukrainian wheat,” Apis said. “And this year, even more so because they suffered from a severe drought that increased their needs for foreign imports.” For Egypt, it is disastrous. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and gets 60 percent of its imports from Russia and 40 percent from Ukraine.
Already in the early days of the Russian invasion of “agricultural markets [in the region] The overreaction and expected to wheat supply problems, which led to higher prices, Apis explained, noting that the price of a ton of wheat has now reached the historical level of 400 euros. Before the dispute it cost 280 euros and 150 euros in spring 2020.
In Tunisia, where there is currently a financial crisis and an inflation rate of more than 6 percent, the population is living with a shortage of semolina and flour, with the support of the government. In the face of rising prices, many Tunisians are struggling to survive without these subsidized products, which are increasingly difficult to obtain. Now it can only be found on the black market, where it is sold at exorbitant prices.
In Egypt, higher wheat prices have increased overall bread costs.
“The government has tried to reassure the people by making it clear that it has enough stocks to last for several months, which will be replenished with the upcoming local spring harvest,” Apis said. Since the start of the Russian offensive, Egypt has attempted to free itself from its dependence on Ukrainian wheat by launching a call for bids with new potential wheat suppliers. “But nothing happened, the prices were too high,” the researcher explained. “It is a vicious circle: even if the state is able to buy wheat at a higher price, this will affect the purchasing power of the people.”
Meanwhile, Algeria is trying to stave off the crisis by implementing preventive measures: the government has banned the export of semolina, pasta and other wheat products to protect its stockpile of raw materials. “But Algeria has an advantage: it exports oil, whose price has reached record levels. This gives it the ability to buy wheat even with higher prices,” Apis said.
‘Unsustainable’ prices for developing countries North Africa is not the only region affected by wheat shortages. Indonesia is the second largest buyer of Ukrainian wheat in the world, and Pakistan, Turkey, and many countries of Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa also depend on it.
“I am particularly concerned about certain countries in West Africa where grain stocks are very low, particularly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal,” Apis said. “For these countries, the current prices are unsustainable.”
On Wednesday, the United Nations called for $4.3 billion in funding to help more than 17 million people in Yemen, saying the war in Ukraine could make the situation in the country – which has been plagued by war since 2014 – worse. According to the United Nations, some 161,000 people in Yemen are likely to experience “catastrophic – or famine-like – levels of hunger” in the second half of this year.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 8-13 million additional people worldwide would face undernourishment if food exports from Ukraine and Russia were stopped permanently.
“We must not forget that this new crisis comes on top of the already very difficult context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already caused historical inflation and undermined food security in many countries,” Apis said.
Wheat, a geopolitical issue In the face of this threat, and the possibility of new “hunger riots” in several countries in 2008 due to high grain prices, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandy called on the European Union to cover the losses of Ukrainian wheat. “Europe must produce more,” he said in an interview with French radio station France Inter on Tuesday, adding that it must “take it upon itself to provide subsistence.”
“What the minister has announced is certainly the most realistic position to take, but we will hardly be able to increase production in a jiffy between now and this summer,” Apis said. “We need to give producers the means and resources to do this, and we need to revise the regulations on uncultivated land… In the past few years, Europe has adopted a ‘better produce’ policy. Producing more means reviewing the entire European agricultural policy.”
“Wheat, more than ever, has become a geopolitical issue,” he said. “Because, behind all this, there is also the question of how countries position themselves in relation to the Russian market. Will Russian grain exports continue? Given the needs of some countries, Moscow will certainly continue to play an important role on the international scene.”
This article was translated from the original into French.