Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Putting Food Security of Millions at Risk
This post was written by Carolyn Hirshon, program specialist, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and Ahmed Kablan, Ph.D., senior science advisor, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
Disruptions to global food supply chains due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are presenting a dire food insecurity situation. Recent estimates suggest up to 40 million additional people could be pushed into poverty and food insecurity in 2022 due to the secondary impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine (Center for Global Development). To avoid a worst-case scenario, the global community will need solutions that are fast and sustainable — interventions that will immediately provide more food, while making the food system more resilient. Improving food safety procedures can reduce food loss and waste, and immediately increase the availability of food while strengthening food supply chains for the future.
Ukraine and Russia are two of the largest agricultural commodity exporters of key products such as wheat, corn, sunflower oil and fertilizer. The United Nations warns that many developing countries — particularly in the Horn of Africa — are expected to be most significantly impacted. These countries are already suffering from a food crisis following three years of severe drought, the pandemic and protracted conflicts. The heightened food security risk for some of the most vulnerable countries due to trade history will be compounded by the fact that emergency food aid is also largely produced in Ukraine. Forty percent of the World Food Programme’s wheat comes from Ukraine.
Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s biggest gateway to trade — Black Sea ports — means millions of metric tons of grain are stuck in storage with nowhere to go. If Russia continues the blockade, mountains of grain will go to waste. Unfortunately, because of the volatile nature of this conflict, no one knows when — if ever — that food will make it to people.
Emergency measures to maintain food supply and counter rising prices are putting food safety procedures at risk. The disruptions have forced the countries that rely on Russia and Ukraine for key commodities to quickly pivot to new suppliers in less regulated environments. This means there is less assurance that these suppliers are not using banned pesticides and unsafe processing and storage facilities. Additionally, there is a potential risk of cross-contamination with allergens and the introduction of mycotoxins, such as aflatoxins, that can cause a range of detrimental health impacts from naucia to child stunting to liver cancer.
To limit global suffering, actions that sustainably increase the amount of available food will need to be made quickly. The World Resources Institute (WRI) outlined seven approaches to support both food security and climate goals in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Reducing food loss and waste is one of them. Millions of tons of food at Black Sea ports is hard to imagine, but the reality is, over 1 billion tons of food are wasted each year. It is estimated that somewhere between 30 and 40% of food that is produced annually is lost or wasted, at a time when between 720 and 811 million people around the globe are facing food insecurity. Cutting food loss and waste in half would provide enough food for 1 billion people.
Interventions that strengthen these food safety systems are a way to reduce food loss and waste and increase the availability of affordable, safe food. Oftentimes when thinking of food safety, it is associated with throwing away food that is unsuitable for human consumption. It is true that abiding by food safety regulations can result in throwing away food and, therefore, increasing food loss and waste. However, investments in food safety innovations and infrastructure earlier in the supply chain actually reduces food loss and waste. Here are a few of examples of work that do both (source: WRI):
- Expanded access to cold storage, such as expanding solar freezers to reduce post-harvest loss.
- Improved handling and processing to reduce microbial contamination, using storage solutions to reduce temperature variations, adoption of low cost hermetic storage and handling technologies.
- Programs that support improved food hygiene, such as access to clean water, appropriate food safety equipment and training in how to reduce food contamination, help reduce food loss and waste.
- Building capacity for various regulatory agencies and food systems actors in risk assessment methods can support less food recalls and reduce food waste.
- Consumer education on better food management, including storage, safe food handling and preparation.
Advancing these types of long-term food safety interventions naturally reduces food loss and waste as well. At a time when tens of millions of additional people are at risk of famine, ensuring that safe, quality food reaches people who need it most and stays out of landfills is one of the few solutions available for increasing food availability without major trade-offs.