‘If we do not feed people, we feed conflict’, Antonio Guterres said, urging Russia to release Ukrainian grain exports.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, many in the world were starving. Global food prices have been on the rise since mid-2020 and are now at an all-time high. Skyrocketing demand coupled with drought in key producing regions of the world, such as South America and the Black Sea, created a perfect storm for commodity prices to spike. And then came the invasion, which only escalated the tight supply-led price rally to an entirely new level. Russia and Ukraine command a significant portion of global agriculture trade flow, especially for wheat and sunflower oil, and the ongoing war will seriously cut supply, create an upsurge in prices and increase the numbers dying of starvation.
In normal times, Ukraine is an agricultural superpower. The country has around 42 million hectares of rich agricultural land, coated in so-called “black soil” (chernozem) containing humus and variety of micro elements, making it the most fertile soil in the world. Only about 2% of the world’s soil is chernozem and about 25% of that is found in Ukraine, which explains why Joseph Stalin considered the country to be the “breadbasket of the Soviet Union”. There’s a certain irony in that almost a century ago, Stalin sent his commissioners and troops to Ukraine to “expropriate” (steal) the grain which he claimed was hoarded by Ukrainian farmers, causing about five million deaths from starvation. Today, Ukrainian farmers are again being killed and their barns and stores “expropriated” by troops sent by Stalin’s protégé, Vladimir Putin. In the past three months, Russian soldiers have destroyed civilian districts, smashed public infrastructure, stolen farm equipment, shelled food storage sites and stolen thousands of tonnes of grain.
For example, there are reports that in the village of Mala Lepetykha, near Russian occupied Kherson, Russian soldiers stole 1,500 tons of grain from storage units which was taken to adjacent Crimea, loaded onto vessels pretending to be Russian grain and then sold. The US news outlet, CNN, showed videos of Russian trucks, several bearing the “Z” sign of the military, carrying grain towards Crimea. One eyewitness told CNN that the Russians went round all the villages, every yard and looked for agricultural machinery and grain which they subsequently looted. Another CNN video showed farm equipment, including sowers and harvesters, being looted from the John Deere dealership in the city of Melitopol, which were then loaded onto flat-bed trucks for the 720-mile trip to Chechnya. Chechen soldiers and hardened mercenaries are being used by the Kremlin for particularly brutal treatment of Ukrainians, and this is part reward. Other stolen farm equipment was tracked to Kursk in Russia, using the embedded GPS.
More damaging than the looting of equipment and 400 thousand tons of grain, however, is the threat to this year’s harvest in one of the world’s most important grain-producing countries. The volumes involved are said to be huge. On the eve of the invasion, 6 million tons of wheat and 15 million tons of corn were ready for export from Ukraine, much of it held in the south of the country. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and with it Ukraine’s most important port, and last week it conquered Mariupol, formerly Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov. With Russian troops slowly heading to Mykolaiv and then eventually, the Kremlin hopes, to Odessa, all Ukrainian exporting ports will be under the control of Moscow. In the meantime, Russia is mercilessly shelling both cities, rendering their ports unusable. Ukraine simply cannot get its grain out to countries that desperately need it.
But this is just one problem. Last year’s crop produced a total of 320 million tons of grain which is currently stored in silos and which in normal times would have been exported by now. In about a month, the new crop will be ready, which means that it too will have to be stored if it cannot be sold. As Ukraine usually sells its grain immediately, there has been no need in the past to invest in double storage. Within weeks there is therefore the real danger that the new crop will arrive and the old crop will go rotten with none exported, creating serious food implications for millions in many countries around the world, increasing the risk of starvation.
Take Egypt, for example. About 40% of its milling grain, the grain that is used for bread, comes from Ukraine. If this fails to materialise, there will be widespread hunger and famine. The effect on the country, as well as the region’s political stability, would almost certainly be catastrophic. It’s not only Egypt that will suffer—14 African countries also depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than 50% of their wheat imports. In fact, almost half of the African continent depends on Russia and Ukraine for a large percentage of their wheat. Already the crisis in Ukraine has pushed up grain prices by more than 25% in just a few weeks. The outlook is not good and many African countries are bracing themselves for serious shortfalls.
The war in Ukraine comes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating socio-economic impact across Africa. This double whammy is placing a huge burden on African households, many of which are already struggling to put food on the table. Unless the conflict is resolved soon, which is unlikely, experts are forecasting critical and hugely damaging supply and pricing effects. Higher food prices mean that fewer African households will be able to afford a single decent daily meal, resulting in rising malnourishment. In the many African countries which are already food-insecure, households will be left much further behind. Their consumption rates will fall, savings will be depleted, debt will increase and assets will be liquidated. In short, the food crisis will result in malnutrition and deepened poverty.
But this will be more than just a socioeconomic issue; it will also be a matter of human security. According to figures from a recent Armed Conflict Location and Event Data report, riots and protests, rather than wars and insurgencies, now account for over half of the violent events in Africa. The recent popular and dangerous protests sparked by food price increases in Sierra Leone illustrate how inflationary pressures can easily foment instability. Recall how the Arab revolts in the early 2010s sparked uprisings and regime change across North Africa, and similar revolts across the whole of Africa are a real possibility. Closer to India, Sri Lanka recently saw weeks of violent protests because of rising food prices and acute shortages of fuel.
Speaking last week at a UN meeting on global food security, Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in New York that shortages of grain and fertiliser caused by the war in Ukraine, warming temperatures and pandemic-driven supply problems threaten to “tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity across the world, with malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, creating a crisis that could last for years”. “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict”, he said, urging Russia to release Ukrainian grain exports. US Secretary of State Blinken went further, accusing Russia this week of using food as a weapon in its war against Ukraine by blocking Ukrainian ports. In rejecting Russia’s claims that Western sanctions imposed on Moscow were slowing grain exports, Blinken said that “sanctions deliberately included carve-outs for food, for fertiliser and grain”, and that “the decision to weaponise food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone”.
As if to confirm Blinken’s charge of weaponisataion, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko insisted on Wednesday that sanctions on Russian exports and financial transactions must be lifted in return for a safe shipping corridor that would release some grain and cooking oils to where it’s needed most. This drew an immediate response from the West, accusing Moscow of “trying to hold the world to ransom”, insisting that there would be no sanctions relief.
In the meantime, countries around the globe are preparing for famine and the chaos of violent protests—unless Russia stops attacking and then unblocks Ukrainian ports.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.