The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The war in Ukraine is triggering a global food crisis. Here’s how the U.S. can help.

A man cools off with water as he waits to reach a gasoline station to refuel his vehicle amid an acute fuel shortage in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 14. Yemen is also expected to face severe food shortages. (Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
3 min

Even before Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the year 2022 was on track to be one of sky-high food prices, food shortages and deep hunger in many parts of the world. Now, there is a massive humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and the war’s impacts are reverberating around the globe. There is almost certainly not going to be enough food to feed the world this year. The situation is quickly becoming “catastrophic,” with a high likelihood of famine in parts of the Middle East and Africa, warns the United Nations’ World Food Program.

Russia and Ukraine were major exporters of wheat, corn, barley, rye, sunflower seeds and more. The two countries supplied about 30 percent of the global wheat trade. The loss of some of these crops cannot be made up overnight, because it takes months to plant and harvest grains. In many ways, this situation is harder to rectify than the oil supply crisis. While oil prices have fallen back, wheat prices still trade near record levels, a telling sign of what is likely to come this spring and summer. Russia is also one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers, which will drive up prices of nearly all crops in the coming months.

Rich nations such as the United States, Australia and much of the European Union will see food prices jump even higher, straining lower-income households that already report they are struggling with inflation. But at least the bread and cereal aisles will still have products on the shelves. In many parts of the developing world, there will be a genuine risk of starvation and famine, because low-income countries do not have enough money to pay high food prices. Fifty countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than 30 percent of their wheat, and many are among the poorest nations in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The worst possible response to the food crisis would be for wealthy nations to halt or heavily restrict exports of key crops. It’s tempting in tough times to hold on to all available supplies, but that exacerbates hunger in developing nations. This scenario played out during the Great Recession in 2008, when dozens of countries severely curbed exports of key crops, triggering food riots from Egypt to Haiti. Egypt has already banned exports of wheat, flour and beans. Meanwhile, China has been quietly scooping up supplies on the global market.

A better approach for the United States and its allies to take is to increase financial aid to the World Food Program and similar initiatives. These organizations respond quickly to needs on the ground and are connected to many suppliers. It would also help if the United States would end or at least temporarily waive the renewable fuel standard during this food crisis, because that diverts substantial amounts of U.S. corn, sorghum and barley to produce ethanol.

The global food crisis can’t be fixed overnight, but rich nations can do a lot to prevent widespread hunger and the instability it spawns.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).