How to Prevent a Meltdown of the Global Food System

Last year, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world feared a collapse of the global food system. The war did end up triggering a food crisis, leading to rising hunger and soaring food prices. Yet one of the bright spots of 2022 was that the international community came together to prevent a full-blown meltdown of the world’s food system. In short, 2022 was bad, but it could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, the food crisis is not just last year’s problem. International efforts after the invasion were a stopgap solution, and one year on, the world is one major crop failure or natural disaster away from a food system meltdown. As local food systems remain fragile, the world must come together once again to address the current humanitarian crisis. This time, even more action and financial support are needed. If countries dependent on food aid are not given the resources to become viable agricultural producers, the global food system may collapse.

Before the war, Ukraine, known as Europe’s breadbasket, was one of the world’s most important food exporters, providing enough food to feed 400 million people each year. Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure severely disrupted food and fertilizer markets, worsening food insecurity for import-dependent nations. Global leaders and analysts feared a “perfect storm” on the heels of pandemic-driven disruptions that could have brought the total number of people facing acute food insecurity worldwide from 193 million to 500 million. At the end of 2022, the actual number of 349 million was still unacceptable. But the international community had managed to prevent a worst-case scenario by prioritizing the food crisis through both increased funding and high-level diplomacy.

Throughout 2022, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) received record support from governments and the private sector. WFP, which is funded entirely by donations, raised $14.2 billion—nearly 50 percent more than the previous year—allowing the organization to distribute food to around 158 million people.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and the G-7 under Germany’s leadership formed the Global Alliance for Food Security just months after the invasion and committed an additional $14 billion to protect the world’s most vulnerable from starvation, hunger, and malnutrition. The alliance also called on all governments to ensure that sanctions against Russia did not affect food and fertilizer, which was essential given Russia’s role as a key exporter.

Crucially, the G-7’s urgent call for Russia to end the export embargo on Ukrainian grain led to the establishment of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a landmark deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey between Russia and Ukraine that has allowed Ukrainian agricultural exports to resume via the Black Sea. The agreement helped stabilize food prices worldwide and remains a lifeline not only for Ukrainian farmers but also for import-dependent nations.

Despite last year’s efforts, the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report names a looming food supply crisis as one of the world’s top threats this year.

Many factors contribute to these projections, including estimates that Ukraine’s prospects for grain production this year may be poorer than in 2022, falling by as much as 35 million to 40 million metric tons in 2023. Ukraine’s 2022 wheat crop was planted prior to the start of the war, and now logistics required to get agricultural inputs such as seed and fertilizer to Ukrainian farms may be more difficult than last year. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, from 2021-22 to 2022-23 Ukraine’s wheat exports fell by an estimated 5.3 million metric tons—a 28 percent decline.

Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural areas do not help the situation. Recent estimates from the Kyiv School of Economics suggest that the war has destroyed more than $6.6 billion of Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure and imposed an additional $34.2 billion in indirect costs to the sector, mainly in the form of forgone production and higher logistics costs for agricultural exports. In addition, much of Ukraine’s arable land is now unusable due to land mines, munitions exposure, and deep trenches dug for warfare, seriously compromising the country’s output. Demining and decontamination could take decades and cost upward of $100 billion.

Meanwhile, although commodity prices have stabilized, global food stocks are still tight. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that global exports of wheat in the past six months were approximately 37 percent lower than the year prior. While bumper crops of powerhouse suppliers such as Australia have helped, there have been poor harvests in other countries, such as Argentina. Furthermore, while Europe has largely been able to import enough fertilizer, Africa has not. African countries are stuck in a cycle of depending on humanitarian aid rather than increasing local production and thus helping to stabilize the global food system.

All these factors are set to have a significant impact on hunger. Those people on the precipice in 2022 remain perilously close to severe food insecurity in 2023. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has projected that the food situation will worsen, with global food supplies estimated to drop to a three-year low in 2022-23, resulting from continued food price inflation and gaps in the supply chain. Furthermore, at the end of 2022, the FAO identified 45 countries—33 in Africa, nine in Asia, two in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Europe—in need of imported food assistance to avoid severe acute food insecurity.

According to Action Against Hunger’s 2023 Hunger Funding Gap Report, only 47 percent of hunger funding needs through the U.N. humanitarian system are met by governments, the private sector, nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists; in 2022, only 3 percent of hunger-related appeals were fully funded, 35 percent of appeals were fulfilled halfway or more, and 65 percent were not even funded to the halfway point. The report also found that the U.N. had not entirely fulfilled appeals for hunger funding made in 2022 by Ethiopia and Somalia, even though a growing number of people there are on the brink of famine.

Governments and international institutions with economic means must take steps to address these gaps and fully tackle the food crisis. First, providing adequate funding to the WFP, UNICEF, and other humanitarian responders must remain a global priority. Individuals, philanthropic foundations, and the private sector must step up and ensure donations exceed 2022 levels. The donor community must also balance providing immediate humanitarian support with reliable funds for long-term development needs.

The international community also needs to ensure the world has enough fertilizer, which remains critical for billions of small farmers, particularly in the developing world. The World Economic Forum has predicted that “the lagged effect of a price spike in fertilizer” will hit global food production this year. To avert this scenario, the international community should promote the efficient use of fertilizers as well as redirect government policies and resources to better support farmers and increase fertilizer production this year and in upcoming years.

Furthermore, governments should remove trade barriers that restrict access to fertilizer. All major exporters of fertilizer and its essential components, including Russia, should be able to export those products without undue constraint. Even Kyiv should permit the transit of ammonia—a costly, critical fertilizer component whose price is heavily influenced by Russian exports—from Russia to the Ukrainian port city of Yuzhny. The European Union and Latvia should also allow ammonia to be exported from Russia through facilities such as Latvia’s Riga Fertilizer Terminal.

Relatedly, all major food-exporting countries, including Russia and Ukraine, need to be able to supply world markets at reasonable prices. The Black Sea Grain Initiative’s continuation is key to this, since it ensures Ukraine can continue to export agricultural products en masse, but its future is uncertain. Since its inception, the initiative has been renewed in 120-day intervals, most recently ending on March 18. Russia agreed to extend the agreement—but this time only for 60 days, creating uncertainty and instability in global grain markets.

Rather than continuing to extend the deal in short increments, the U.N., Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine must work together to extend it through Nov. 1 so that the agreement is guaranteed through Ukraine’s main harvest shipping period and winter planting season. This action would reassure global food markets of continued access to Ukrainian exports and give Ukrainian farmers the confidence to invest in planting and harvesting, at least for the current season.

The world’s hunger crisis demands continuing—and expanding on—the global community’s concerted effort of the past year. Now is not the time to put the challenges of global food insecurity on the back burner. Only persistent political will and action, along with increased funding and support from multilateral organizations, governments, and the private sector, can ensure that the world avoids widespread hunger and famine in 2023.

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