By Mario Lubetkin
This is an op-ed by Mario Lubetkin, Assistant Director-General of FAO
ROME, Apr 27 2022 (IPS) - Two months after the start of the war, on 24 February, the data on the substantial increase in the cost of food products, the rise in prices and shortages of fertilizers, the destruction of land and plantations in Ukraine, the sanctions, the difficulties with the transport of cereals from the world’s main granary, represented by Russia and Ukraine, and the massive migrations, especially from rural areas, are just a few aspects that confirm the pessimism that had been generated after the outbreak of the conflict.
Data released at the end of March by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicated that food prices had increased 12.6% compared to the previous month.
This monthly increase had never been seen before this century and can only be compared to the increase in the 1980s. Cereals increased by 17.6% in one month and the prices of vegetable oils increased by more than 23%, even meat increased by 4.8% compared to February of this year.
This situation only increases the risk for the 50 low-income, food-deficit countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that get more than 30% of their wheat from the war zone, which will now have to look for replacement producers to prevent prices from significantly affecting the economies of those countries.
Of these 50 nations, 26 get more than 50% of their imports from these two countries in conflict.
It is enough to think that countries with large populations, such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, which are wheat importers, buy about 60% from Russia and Ukraine. Other countries with strong internal conflicts, such as Libya and Yemen, and nations such as Lebanon, Pakistan, and Tunisia are also heavily dependent on these imports.
The dramatic situation in Ukraine, a predominantly agricultural country, has led to a concentrated effort to save as much as possible of the current crops that should be harvested in May/June, and in turn, avoid interrupting the production process and planting new crops in June/July.
FAO technicians pointed out that 115 million USD dollars are urgently needed to prevent further deterioration of the food insecurity situation in Ukraine, to assist its farmers in planting vegetables and potatoes during the European spring and to try to ensure producers have minimal conditions to go to the fields and save the winter wheat harvest.
“As food access, production and general availability are deteriorating in much of Ukraine as a result of the war, efforts to support agricultural production and the functioning of food supply chains will be essential to avert a crisis in 2022 and even in 2023”, said Rein Paulsen, Director of FAO´s Office of Emergencies.
According to experts, if the dramatic situation continues, one third of crops and agricultural land may not be harvested or cultivated in 2022.
The forced displacement of civilians fleeing the war and the recruitment of men into the territorial defense forces are leading to labor shortages and an increased burden on women, as well as reduced access to crucial agricultural inputs for plantations.
The war has led to the closure of ports, the suspension of oilseed crushing activities, and the introduction of export licensing restrictions and bans on some crops and food products. Major Ukrainian cities are being surrounded and continue to be heavily shelled, leaving people isolated and exposed to severe shortages of food, water, and power.
It is difficult to think that other producing countries can replace the production levels of Russia and Ukraine to any significant extent in the face of a disrupted export market.
Just think that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, with Ukraine the fifth largest, and that together they provided 19% of the world’s supply of barley, 14% of wheat, and 4% of corn, and also accounted for 52% of the world sunflower oil market, while Russia is the world’s largest producer of fertilizers.
As Pope Francis pointed out, without peace the problem of hunger will not be solved, recalling that, in addition to the dramatic nature of this war in Europe, there are serious unresolved conflicts such as those in Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, and others that also condemn many millions of people to starvation.
As FAO Director-General QU Dongyu has repeatedly called for since the start of the conflict, every effort should be made to keep the food and fertilizer trade open, to seek new and diversified food supplies.
The same effort should be made to support the most vulnerable groups, including the internally displaced, with social assistance, avoid special regulatory reactions per country that can harm international markets in the short and medium-term, contain the spread of African swine fever, and strengthen the transparency of markets.