The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Ukraine war could leave hundreds of millions hungry around the world

Volunteers provide food to refugees from Ukraine at the Warsaw Central train station in Warsaw on March 7. (Pawel Supernak/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

David Beasley is executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

RZESZOW, Poland, near the Ukrainian border — If war in modern Europe seemed unthinkable, think, then, of hunger in Ukraine’s cobbled streets and towns, where sushi restaurants and burger joints were the norm two weeks ago. Yet hunger is looming and, swift as a contagion, emerging in Europe’s legendary breadbasket.

A reported 2 million Ukrainian refugees — soon perhaps several million more — have crossed or are trying to cross borders. Even as humanitarians and governments feed those who make it out, the systems that feed the tens of millions trapped inside Ukraine are falling apart: trucks and trains destroyed, airports bombed, bridges fallen, supermarkets emptied and warehouses drained.

The people of Ukraine know too well how a garden of abundance can quickly become barren because of political decisions. In 1932 and 1933, millions of Ukrainians perished in what the Ukrainians call the Holodomor, or the starvation, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin enforced agricultural “collectivization,” stripping peasant farmers of their land and produce.

While hunger threatens Ukraine directly, the fallout from this war will spread across the globe. Russia and Ukraine together export about 30 percent of the world’s wheat. Indeed, Ukraine’s entry as a major player in the global food supply in the past decade was a part of its emerging success as a stabilizing and prosperous country. As the war heats up, dozens of distant countries are set to feel the burn.

Very soon, surviving Ukrainian farmers will be trying to seed their spring fields in some of the world’s richest earth, from where the World Food Programme (WFP) had hitherto drawn more than half our wheat. Our organization purchases about 400 metric tons of food globally every hour and moves that around the world by ship, plane and truck.

Ukrainian wheat moved swiftly on the conveyor belt of international markets and to our humanitarian operations for other countries beset by war, such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen, where millions teeter on the edge of starvation. That conveyor belt now turns in reverse, as the WFP mobilizes to assist more than 3 million Ukrainians inside and outside the country, at a cost of half a billion dollars over the next few months.

If Ukrainian fields lie fallow this year, aid agencies such as ours will be forced to source new markets to compensate for the loss of some of the world’s best wheat. Doing so will come at a vastly inflated cost.

Because of scarcity, war, the pandemic’s economic aftershocks and crude oil prices near a 13-year high, WFP is already paying 30 percent more for food than it was in 2019, amounting to an additional $50 million every month. If the Black Sea transport corridors are disrupted further by this burgeoning war, transport prices will spike in lockstep, doubling or even tripling.

Quickly, the most fragile nations would be rendered even more exposed by this war.

Between 2019 and today, the number of people at the brink of famine has risen from 27 million to 44 million. An additional 232 million people are just one step behind that category. WFP helped about 128 million of these individuals last year with cash and food assistance. These numbers are fanned by conflict, climate change, covid-19 and now, increasingly, cost. The sparks of this hunger are falling everywhere, from the dry corridor of Central America to the drought-stricken sands of Somalia.

The effects on the ground make for brutal choices. With our funding leveling off because donor nations’ treasuries are so stretched, we have had to slash rations to refugees and other populations across East Africa and the Middle East. Halved rations mean hungry children eating the equivalent of just one bowl of cereal each day.

It wasn’t all gloom just a few weeks ago. There were early glimmers that economies were beginning to recover from the pandemic. But Russia’s invasion has reminded us that the root cause of hunger around the world is human folly and reckless disregard for human life. The impact of a Ukraine gutted by the firestorm of war will be felt globally for years to come.

Watch the new Post Opinions short doc screening at film festivals

When American Emad Shargi is taken hostage by Iran as a pawn in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., his wife and daughters must fight to free him. (Video: The Washington Post)