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Food crises to worsen with war, climate shocks

Tens of millions of people in 20 hunger "hotspots" will need emergency aid as they face a sharply increased risk of starvation, two U.N. agencies predicted.

A refugee in Idlib, Syria
A refugee in Idlib, Syria (AN/Ahmed Akacha)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — On the same day that two U.N. agencies predicted a huge spike in global hunger "hotspots," Russia's ambassador to the United Nations stormed out of a Security Council meeting when European Council President Charles Michel said Russia uses food supplies as “a stealth missile against developing countries."

Michel's accusation on Monday that the Kremlin is entirely to blame for the looming global food crisis centers on the global upheaval and supply chain disruptions brought on by Russia's war in Ukraine.

"The dramatic consequences of Russia's war are spilling over across the globe. And this is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty and destabilizing entire regions," Michel said. "Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis, Russia alone. Despite the Kremlin's campaign of lies and disinformation. I have seen it with my own eyes."

Michel said a few weeks ago in Odesa he saw "millions of tons of grain and wheat stuck in containers and ships because of Russian warships in the Black Sea and because of Russia's attack on transport infrastructure. And it is Russian tanks, Russian bombs and mines that are preventing Ukraine from planting and harvesting. The Kremlin is also targeting grain storage and stealing grain in Ukraine while shifting the blame on others."

As Michel briefed the council in New York, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, walked out and gave his seat to another diplomat. Michel raised the issue of the war's impact on food shortages during a meeting of the 15-nation council, the U.N.'s most powerful arm, that primarily focused on the war's sexual violence.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is trying to reach agreement for nations to have unrestricted access to Ukraine's grain exports and Russian food and fertilizer, since the two nations supply nearly a third of the world's wheat and barley. Russia also is the world's second biggest producer of potash, used in fertilizer.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, noted that Russian missiles hit a railway compound important for bringing grain to Ukrainian ports and said that “as a first step Russia must withdraw its naval forces in the maritime waters around Ukraine and provide security guarantees against attacks in ports."

'Overlapping crises'

Over the summer tens of millions of people living in 20 nations and other hunger "hotspots" will need emergency aid as they face a sharply increased risk of starvation, two U.N. agencies predicted on Monday.

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program issued an "early warning for urgent humanitarian action" in countries or regional clusters where the situation is worsening for inhabitants that already suffer from high levels of "acute food insecurity," a term that means people's lives or livelihoods are in immediate danger because they lack enough food to eat.

Organized violence and armed conflict remain the primary driver of acute food insecurity across regions and in the majority of the hunger hotspots. This reflects a global trend where conflict continues to affect the largest share of people facing acute food insecurity," the report says.

“We are deeply concerned about the combined impacts of overlapping crises jeopardizing people’s ability to produce and access foods, pushing millions more into extreme levels of acute food insecurity,” said FAO's director-general, Qu Dongyu. “We are in a race against time to help farmers in the most affected countries, including by rapidly increasing potential food production and boosting their resilience in the face of challenges."

WFP's executive director, David Beasley, said the world is facing "a perfect storm" that will overwhelm millions of families barely holding on to existence.

"Conditions now are much worse than during the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2007-2008 food price crisis, when 48 countries were rocked by political unrest, riots and protests," he said. "We’ve already seen what’s happening in Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru, and Sri Lanka — that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have solutions. But we need to act, and act fast."

'Catastrophic conditions'

The agencies said Russia's war in Ukraine, which disrupted global supply chains, spiked already rising food and energy prices worldwide. The result is more economic instability, spiraling prices and less food production, exacerbated by droughts or flooding from human-caused climate change.

An "unprecedented" drought affects Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya while South Sudan faces a fourth straight year of large-scale flooding, the report says.

Above-average rains and a risk of localized flooding afflict the Africa's Sahel, it says, while a more intense hurricane season endangers the Caribbean and below-average rains hurt Afghanistan, already suffering from seasons of drought, violence and political upheaval.

Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen are the most critical hotspots, but Afghanistan and Somalia also are at risk of encountering "catastrophic conditions," according to the two U.N. agencies.

Of the 750,000 people facing starvation and death in these six countries, 400,000 are in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which is the highest that any single nation has faced since Somalia's 2011 famine.