By David Braughton
The war in Ukraine entails not only death, injury, and destitution for millions of people, but is also precipitating a major food crisis with global ramifications.
The scenes of widespread destruction and devastation coming out of Ukraine remind one of the kind of post-apocalyptical world depicted in graphic novels where the unthinkable has happened. Bodies littering the street, entire residential neighborhoods decimated, safe havens—hospitals, bomb shelters, daycare centers—bombed, and hastily dug mass graves scarring the landscape. One photo shows a woman mourning over her young child who was killed in a missile strike. Another shows an elderly woman desperately clawing at the rubble of what was once her home, hoping to find her loved ones still alive beneath the broken bricks and shredded timbers. In still another, men look futilely at an apartment building with flames pouring out of rooms that, until yesterday, people called home.
Over 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland to neighboring countries. They are the lucky ones. Another 7.1 million Ukrainians have been dislocated and thousands have perished. What these images do not show is the starvation that many Ukrainians now face, while at the same time warehouses stand filled with thousands of metric tons of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Farms, which once grew enough grain to feed 400 million people, have become battlegrounds just as the growing season begins. All these are portents of an even more widespread catastrophe for people around the globe who depend on Ukrainian grain and oil for their daily diet.
Even before the war broke out, an estimated 881 million people, approximately 10% of the world’s population, experienced chronic food insecurity. Local conflicts, climate change, supply chain disruptions, rising fuel prices, and chronic unemployment caused by COVID, had already pushed many of these individuals to the brink of starvation. As a result of the war, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that as many as 250 million more of the world’s poor will become food insecure.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the cost of wheat rose by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021. Recently, a UN report said that food prices across the globe rose by 34% this past year. For people in poor countries such as Egypt, who might spend as much as 50% or 60% of their income on food, this increase has put many essentials, such as bread and other staples, out of their reach. Four months ago, five Egyptian pounds (roughly 30 cents in U.S. currency) would have bought ten loaves of bread, but now they can buy only seven.
The WFP reports that the countries most dependent upon Ukrainian exports include Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan. But the effects are being felt globally, even in places as remote as Peru and Sri Lanka, where the ever-increasing cost of food is contributing to political unrest and instability. In both countries, people have turned out for mass demonstrations and, in some cases, have rioted to protest the scarcity and cost of staples such as wheat and corn and gasoline.
Western nations have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by imposing harsh economic sanctions and supplying Ukraine with primarily defensive weapons. The result has been even more costly fuel, the loss of another important source of basic foodstuffs, and a drastic reduction in the export of fertilizer, which many farmers depend on to grow their crops. Add to this the drought that has reduced wheat yields in the western United States and elsewhere, and the situation looks even more dire.
The World Food Programme, which feeds approximately 250 million people daily, reports that prior to the war, it purchased 50% of all its grain from Ukraine. Now it must spend $71 million more each month due to shortages and rising shipping and operating costs. David Beasley, the program’s Executive Director, has stated that the WFP may have to cut rations in half as they turn their attention to also feeding the millions of Ukrainians who have been displaced and the millions more people elsewhere around the world who now face food insecurity and the threat of starvation. This means taking food from undernourished infants in Africa to ensure that people whose homes and lives have been destroyed, along with those who live far from the conflict, do not starve to death. Beasley goes on to say that “we’ve got now 45 million people in 38 countries that are knocking on famine’s door.” And the price increase in places like Syria will be 100% or 200%. In Yemen, the WFP has already cut rations to 8 million people and about 50% to people in Chad, Niger, and Mali.
The terrible irony, according to Beasley, is that there is $430 trillion in wealth around the world today, so there is no reason any child should be dying from hunger. Without immediate action, he predicts that in addition to civil unrest and political instability, the world will witness mass migrations unprecedented in human history.
For its part, Buddhist Global Relief has decided to make one-time supplemental allocations to twenty-two of the direct food relief projects that it currently sponsors. These projects are located in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Kenya, Haiti, India, Malawi, Mongolia, Peru, Uganda, Vietnam, and the United States. BGR is also intending to expand its emergency relief assistance in anticipation of more urgent requests in the coming months. If you would like to support these efforts, please consider contributing now. Our website is buddhistglobalrelief.org.
David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.