"The Damage Will Take Time to Repair": An Interview with Caitlin Welsh on the Impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on Food Security

May 9, 2022

The world, already hit by the COVID19 global pandemic and struggling with the climate crisis, now faces another serious problem: food insecurity.

The Russia–Ukraine war threatens global food security, especially in Asia and the MENA region, which heavily rely on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, oilseeds, and fertilizers. The world, already hit by the COVID19 global pandemic and struggling with the climate crisis, now faces another serious problem: food insecurity. Nihan Duran of Politics Today interviewed Caitlin Welsh, the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., on the alarming consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the road ahead to address future global shocks on food security.

Q. On February 24, 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine started and the war doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Meanwhile, the war has started to threaten food security globally. But, let’s start at the very beginning: what do we mean by food insecurity?

Food insecurity means the lack of access to a diet that allows for an active and healthy lifestyle. So, it is not only the lack of access to sufficient food but the lack of access to food of the right nutritional quality, which will encourage physical and cognitive development.

There are multiple ways to improve food security; such as long-term agricultural development and short-term humanitarian emergency assistance, as we are seeing in response to the Ukraine crisis right now. Ukrainians fleeing the country—and also populations inside Ukraine—are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, as they are currently experiencing food insecurity due to the existing conflict situation.

Q. Apart from Ukrainians experiencing food insecurity due to the ongoing war, there are increasing concerns that the war will impact food security globally. Many countries heavily rely on Russian and Ukrainian wheat and oilseeds. What is this situation like?

It is true that Russia and Ukraine produce a significant amount of the world’s grains and oilseeds, in addition to fertilizers. So, a lot of agricultural commodities are not just produced there, but also exported from there. Worth noting is that Russia and Ukraine combined account for a substantial portion of the exports of those commodities around the world.

We have to consider that wheat is the most important part of the diets in the Middle East and North Africa. There are 26 countries that rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine to meet at least 50% of their wheat imports. And then, there are 50 countries that rely on Russia and Ukraine for 30% of their wheat imports. Therefore, the countries that are going to be most affected are the ones that import their wheat needs mostly from Russia and Ukraine.

Q. I understand that the situation may get worse and become dire for the MENA region. What would be the short- and long-term consequences of the Ukraine war on food security there?

The best-case scenario will be, of course, one in which the war ends quickly. However, even if there could be a ceasefire tonight, the damage will take some time to repair. There is a significant amount of infrastructure that has been damaged; we see fields plowed over by tanks, railroads destroyed, ports closed export facilities due to bombardments, and so on.

If the war were to end now, then two important things could happen in the agriculture cycle. One would be that the current crop of cereals, which is in the ground right now, could be cultivated and harvested in the summertime, and the next crop of cereals, which would be planted in late summer, could be put in the ground for harvest in 2023. Then those grains could be exported to global markets, which, as I mentioned, is critical for the countries that are dependent on Ukrainian wheat.

Q. What about the worst-case scenario?

The worst-case scenario is that the war goes on, more agricultural infrastructure is damaged, and fewer people can participate in agricultural production due to the war. We have not yet seen official reports that estimate how much of the current crop will not be able to be harvested, so we are not able to put a number to it, but there is this risk.

Right now, to restore food security in Ukraine and around the world, the war needs to end. Even if that were to happen tomorrow, the agricultural sector will take time to repair and addressing the existing impacts of the war on food security in Ukraine and globally will also take time.

Q. We will not wait with crossed arms, right? What is the road ahead? How will—or should—the international community respond to the war’s impact on food security?

There are several things that are important to consider in terms of an international response. The first is to encourage a coordinated response among food-exporting and food-importing countries. When countries act in their interest, decisions are made that have negative impacts globally. When the global food crisis happened in 2007-2008, there was a reduction of staple foods on global markets due to droughts in several parts of the world. What happened was that a number of countries put up export bans, which reduced the amount of food on markets even further

Today, there is a fear that a lot of food-producing countries will take a similar approach to 2007-2008 and impose export bans to protect their domestic supply. If that happens, it is only going to make the problem worse. And, if 2007-2008 is any indication, we can expect global food insecurity to significantly increase as a result

Q. What would the international response to such a threat be?

We actually already see some coordination among multilateral organizations. The G7 put out a call advising countries around the world not to impose export bans. The head of the World Trade Organization also said that the organization is calling member states and advising them against export bans.

When it comes to sanctions on Russia, most countries have so far avoided putting sanctions on Russian agricultural products. It remains critical for countries to continue not to attack Russia’s agriculture sector with sanctions.

Relatedly, it is incredibly important to keep fertilizer markets open. It is not just the grain that is being exported from Russia and Ukraine, it is also fertilizer. Russia and Belarus together are the main exporters of low-cost fertilizer. Threatening those exports would make farming more expensive for all types of farmers, from the poorest farmers to large industries.

Q. What about local responses to support the food and agriculture sector in war-torn Ukraine, and other countries that rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine?

It is crucial to support Ukraine’s agricultural sector even in the midst of the war. Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture did a survey about the input needs of its farmers. Listening to Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture and supporting their agriculture industry is vital at this very moment.

Equally important is to support the countries that rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine and to find other sources for food imports. This is a time to boost investments and social safety net systems to help the poorest of the poor to still access food during price increases.

Q. My last question will be a lessons-learned one. The world was trying to handle the climate crisis, was then hit hard by the COVID19 global pandemic in early 2020, and now the Ukraine war and global food insecurity! What lessons should we draw?

Right now, what we are seeing is another recognition that food systems are global, and that an event happening in one part of the world can affect food security in other countries that have nothing to do with that particular event. Two years ago, when COVID19 hit, we saw shocks throughout the supply chain with significant impacts on household food insecurity. The shock that we had during COVID19 had nothing to do with supply. Supply was there; it just had to do with markets.

When we probably thought that there would be several more years out from another shock like this, now we have the war in Ukraine. But this shock is completely different in nature.

As we are thinking about short-term responses to address the impact of this particular crisis, we also need to be prepared for other global shocks of different types and magnitudes. This current crisis is a reminder that we need to continue to be prepared for shocks of different natures. The former one had to do with a pandemic, this current one has to do with a war, and the next could be due to climate change and a severe weather event. We might not be able to anticipate what the nature of the shock would be, but in the longer term, we need to be looking at how we can strengthen our own national and global systems, so that we can withstand these shocks.

Nihan Duran received her IB from the American Collegiate Institute, Izmir. She holds a dual degree in International Relations and American Culture and Literature, along with a minor degree in German Translation and Interpretation. She received her MA in International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and Sciences Po, Paris. Currently, she pursues her PhD in Political Science and International Relations at Izmir University of Economics