25 May 2023

The “Crises” of Conflict and Food Insecurity

In examining global food security, Associate Professor Anne Saab points out that there is more to the global food supply problem than the obvious "crises". 

The ongoing war between Russia and the Ukraine makes the complexity and interdependence of our global food system painfully clear. The most obvious and direct victims of this conflict are people losing their lives, livelihoods, homes and futures in the conflict areas. But this conflict also has severe impacts on global food security, as widely reported in policy reports and media. Together, Russia and the Ukraine export one-quarter of the wheat on the global market. Countries in, Africa, Asia and the Middle East are particularly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, but consumers in Europe are likewise feeling the impact. The war impedes farmers from producing wheat, so the production and availability of an important food source are affected. Higher fuel prices, and increased scarcity and market competition augment food prices, affecting economic access to food. Damage to infrastructure (for instance, ports through which food is exported) and economic sanctions (including trade embargoes and restrictions on imports/exports) prevent food from reaching destinations that are highly dependent on these exports.

The war between Russia and the Ukraine is one of the contributing factors to the current “global food crisis”. In fact, this is not a single crisis but a mix of multiple and intricately connected crises: climate crisis, economic crisis, health crisis (specifically the COVID-19 crisis), to name a few. The use of the term “crisis” has become commonplace to describe situations or periods that mark instability, upheaval and change. Without engaging in a conversation on the meaning and history of the term, the use of “crisis” often gives the impression that these situations came about quite suddenly and unexpectedly, and that they are somehow beyond our control. Neither the war between Russia and the Ukraine nor its impacts on global food security were unexpected or sudden. Moreover, as the examples above illustrate, only part of the effects of the war on food security are direct. Many adverse impacts on food security are indirect results of intentional and thought-through responses to the conflict. 

Focusing on the multiple “crises” of conflict and food insecurity obscures the view of structural vulnerabilities underlying the global food system. There is no doubt that the Russia/Ukraine war and the international response to the war has and will continue to have an important effect on the availability of global food supplies and their physical and economic access. The enormous vulnerabilities and interdependencies that have been created in our global food system make these impacts so urgent and huge. Deliberate choices are made, and have been made, that make people on one side of the world completely dependent on what happens on the other side of the world. Economic sanctions might be justified from the perspective of international security, but they hit those countries and people who are already the most vulnerable and the most food insecure the hardest. When this war is over – hopefully soon – the “food crisis” might also be declared to be over, but structural vulnerabilities will remain.  

Let us therefore look beyond the immediate “crises” before us and rethink the way we have organised global food systems, in an effort to achieve structural global food security.