The Russian invasion of Ukraine is bad. It’s bad for a multiplicity of reasons. Not least among them, as Western media has recently caught on, are the global impacts that a Russian war in Ukraine has on wheat, corn, and global food prices.
As I wrote in Foreign Policy in late January, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to have major impacts on the ability of Ukraine to fulfill its exports of grains and seed oils, which threatens to cut off food insecure countries in Asia and Africa from needed supplies of food.
Since the invasion, the situation has become worse than I, and many others, feared.
Not only have Ukraine’s food exports been stalled, and the upcoming harvest and planting seasons put at risk, but so have Russia’s exports been limited, due to a combination of sanctions and Black Sea disruptions. The resulting spikes in commodity food prices have been jarring.
The usual calamity following commodity price spikes — high food prices, concerns over inflation, speculative traders losing their minds on Twitter — are minor compared to the risk that such disruptions pose on hungry people in lower and middle-income countries that rely on agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia.
When you combine the impacts of disrupted wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine — the top and 5th largest global wheat exporters respectively, and responsible for more than a quarter of global wheat exports, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization — the extent of the crisis is clear.
The Republic of the Congo, for example, imports 75% of its total wheat supply from Russia. Tanzania, Lebanon, Oman, and Nicaragua all import more than 60% of their total wheat supply from a combination of Russia and Ukraine.
Overall, 12 countries rely on a combination of Russian and Ukrainian wheat for over 50% of their total wheat supply, 22 for more than 40% and 32 for over 30%.
When taking into account other agricultural goods — Ukrainian corn exports, Russian and Ukrainian sunflower oil exports and the slew of other grains grown extensively in the black soil region of both countries — it is clear that the Russian invasion will have severe and lasting impacts on food security all over the world.
These disruptions, and their impact on global food prices and insecurity, could have resounding human and political consequences.
Reduced food supply to already food insecure nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which relies on Russian wheat for approximately 60% of its wheat supply, will exacerbate hunger and malnutrition. For context, in late 2021 there were 27 million people in DRC who faced high levels of food insecurity. The size of that cohort and the intensity of hunger are likely to increase.
Hunger is also a political nightmare. One doesn’t need to look too far into the past to see political mobilizations in response to high food prices and hunger. The revolt in Kazakhstan in early 2022 and Lebanon’s October Revolution of 2019 were spurred by cost-of-living increases.
Likewise, the Arab Spring revolutions just over a decade ago were political responses to high food and fuel prices and failures to reform governance. In Egypt, high food prices matched with already existing grievances to spark the January Revolution that saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Whatever the potential political issues that could arise from the Russian invasion of Ukraine-related food shortage and price spike, the human consequences are serious enough to require the attention of world leaders, international aid organizations and high productivity agricultural countries.
In short, something must be done to alleviate the suffering stemming from this food crisis. Specifically, U.S. policy makers need to act now, both to mitigate hunger abroad and keep food prices stable domestically.
The United States government must increase its contribution to the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and demand other wealthy countries do the same. The World Food Programme purchases food to supply it to food insecure countries and individuals, and has already faced significant issues paying for its aid and sourcing grains in the face of disrupted Ukrainian supply — the organization relies on Ukraine for about 50% of their grain purchases.
Currently, the U.S. government is responsible for a whopping 40% of UNWFP’s total budget — equivalent to about $3.3 billion dollars for their 2020 budget. Doubling or tripling that number in the short term would mean a significant increase in UNWFP’s capacity to react to our current crisis. While such funding will be crucial to reducing hunger and food insecurity stemming from the invasion, it does not solve for increased food prices.
In order to mitigate the human consequences of food insecurity and help keep prices low, the United States can also leverage agricultural policies to help boost global supply of grains and seed oils in the face of these war-related shortages.
One way to do that would be to reform the Renewable Fuel Standard such that corn and soybeans that would’ve been used for biofuel or biodiesel are instead used as food or feed to be sold on the global market.
About 40% of the corn crop and 30% of soy oil produced in the United States is used in biofuel. That’s equivalent to 132 million metric tons of corn — mostly yellow dent corn — and about 10 million tons of soy oil. Using some of this corn and soy production for food exports could have significant positive impacts on global food prices and hunger. For example, if the U.S. made half of the corn production typically used for domestic ethanol available for export — about 66 million tons of corn — it would more than replace the 28 million metric ton shortage of corn from loss of Ukrainian exports.
Other than the logistical difficulty of rerouting massive amounts of agricultural products, reforming RFS also faces opposition from agricultural organizations that value the economic benefits of biofuel production and the risk of further increasing the price of gasoline in the United States — a relationship, to be fair, that requires more research.
Even still, reforming RFS could also have long-term environmental benefits by prioritizing agricultural lands for food production and limiting global land-use for agriculture.
Action needs to be taken immediately to make sure this crisis does not get out of control.