In the 1970s and 80s, there were multiple instances of images emerging from the Sahel, Sudan, and Ethiopia that brought famine to the fore of the world’s attention. Largely as a result of this striking imagery, a community of global food security monitoring organizations stepped up to address newly-energized public concerns to end hunger and famine, precisely in some of the most remote areas of the world. These organizations applied modern tools of Earth observation, novel ways to collect local data and information, and a variety of new and re-purposed tools and techniques to analyze the health, wealth and agency of the globe’s most food insecure regions. Over time, these organizations generated an advanced ability to detect and regularly measure food supply (food available for consumption by someone), and food access (an ability to gain access to and consume that available food), and inform a variety of humanitarian safety nets and development activities about where the risks require the most urgent responses. Although food insecurity has not yet been eradicated, it is arguable that fewer people are now affected – and less of the time by ‘extreme’ food insecurity – and that famine will likely not occur unnoticed again.
The most common features of the populations and areas that were prioritized for monitoring was not a surprise to anyone. There was a deep and seemingly irreversible lack of options to protect and grow these communities’ lives and livelihoods. They had little income, few assets, poor land, no stable source of water, poor schools, no clinics, limited communication, and little ability to call on the state for assistance. The roads didn’t reach them, the markets didn’t effectively serve them, there was no one to call, and no one was watching.
And then, in February 2022, the Russians invaded Ukraine. The loss of human lives from the war that still rages, is certainly the most visible and unfortunate immediate impact of that conflict. But soon after it began, recognizing the over-sized role that Ukraine and Russia play in exporting surplus wheat and corn to food importing nations of the world, a global concern began to rise that might not have been obvious to many at the start – the possibility of global food insecurity and famine in countries unable to import enough to meet their food needs. A global impact “beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II”, said one official. Then, as grain prices rose on the backs of already near record prices, another official indicated that increases in food prices triggered by Russia's war in Ukraine could kill "millions" of people globally.
And all of this was occurring at the same moment the principal food security monitoring agencies were loudly warning about an already deadly descent into famine in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Thus the juxtaposition of two potentially deadly cases of food insecurity combined with a chance of famine at the same time in the world – one looking like the famines of old, and the other significantly different in its causes, locations, and in whom it was likely to affect most.
Both serious, but different. This dichotomy necessitates some new thought on how food insecurity may now manifest itself in the world, and poses a critical question about whether we are still able to anticipate and evaluate new food crisis threats in ways which facilitate useful and effective responses to them in time.
In the 1980s, Ethiopia and Sudan had little reliance upon the global market as a back-up plan when food production failed. And when it did fail, severe food insecurity and famine inevitably occurred. Today, many of the countries we are watching most closely for food insecurity due to the war in Ukraine are heavily dependent upon agricultural commodity imports to meet a major part of their diet.
These facts are highlighted by one of the oldest food security monitoring tools in existence, the FAO food balance sheet (FBS). An FBS provides a country-by-country accounting of the sources of a given region’s domestic food supply – against all uses of this supply – serving as a measure of whether the needs of the country are being met. In Table 1, below, when we compare the relative quantity of all grain and rice imports of MENA1 countries to their total domestic supplies, we see that there is an average reliance of 52% on imports to meet the countries’ needs. For African countries, imports generally comprise less than half (24.3%) the needs of MENA countries, and the world’s average is 18%.
Although the ability to import food from the global market is often a distinct food security advantage, there are a number of risks for countries which rely upon these imports: an unwelcome competition with the world for available export stocks, an injection of pricing pressures from different economies, and high-importers held hostage to a host of other related, non-local impediments in meeting community needs (i.e. pandemics, canal closures, dock strikes, terror attacks, and contemporaneous and consecutive droughts in some of the world’s most productive areas).
Although the type of food insecurity import-dependent countries face is not the same as the poverty-based food insecurity found in Somalia, Sudan, Niger, or Haiti, it would be unwise to not pay more systematic attention to their food production, consumption, stock and prices, fluctuating import requirements, ability to pay for imports, and the levels of social and political discontent these pressures produce. If ever they falter, the consequences could be large from both a food and global stability perspective.
In the 1980s, famine-struck Ethiopia and Sudan endured a lack of access to external markets that was hardly noticeable in mitigating their national shortfalls in food supply. In the 2020s, these same countries are now challenged in significant ways by their degree of reliance upon the market, its high prices, and global supply concerns.
The devastating war in Ukraine is occurring in a country that is not considered food insecure. Quite the opposite, both Ukraine and Russia regularly produce more food than they can consume, a relatively rare circumstance in the world today. The World Food Program procures much of the grain it distributes world-wide from Ukraine, and the country has never been on the radar of early warning and humanitarian agencies.
Yet this “local” conflict has been considered, since shortly after it began, a major threat to global food insecurity, competing for (and most often winning) volumes of news coverage, even against an unfolding, true famine in the Horn of Africa. Why?
Figure 1 shows some of the countries, many of them highly food insecure, who heavily rely upon Ukrainian and/or Russian commodity imports to cover the food consumption requirements that are not met by their own production. On average, between 2017 and 2021, the countries shown in this graph imported approximately 43,000,000 MT of wheat and maize per year (based upon maritime commodity freight data from AgFlow).
In the early months following the invasion, because of this reliance, there was a real fear of widespread severe food shortages and even famine in many places of the world. So many nations chasing such large amounts of imports was a disaster waiting to happen, observers said, especially in a market where the global stock-to-usage ratio was historically low, prices were at historic highs following weather and pandemic-related disruptions, and where exports from Ukraine and Russia would no longer flow. How could this combination of factors not produce famine?
Make no mistake, market access is generally, and by far, a positive feature of an overall ability to assure a stable and affordable supply of food for most countries. But these market-dependent nations and populations are now sometimes unwilling participants in disasters that occur a long way from their borders, where they have no control over circumstances, and for which they have no obvious Plan B when the system breaks down.
After the Russian invasion, Ukrainian exports of millions of tons of maize and wheat ceased. Even Russian exports fell steeply due to sanctions, higher transport costs and the uncertainties of an evolving military exercise. The world’s attention quickly turned to whether any exporting countries would be able to step up and cover the loss of Ukrainian and Russian grain.
In March of 2022, the answer was far from clear. Traditional northern-hemisphere powerhouse exporters like the United States, the European Union and Canada, were still months from their harvests, and stocks were already low. Floods, historic drought and heat were already clouding the prospects for future harvests, and the answer is still not clear how well they can cover normal needs, much less the eventual percentage loss of Ukrainian and Russian supplies.
But it’s not just about production either. Two of the world’s largest producers of maize and wheat, India and China, are also two of its largest consumers of those crops. To the degree they can’t meet their own needs, they may inject a huge surge of demand for imports into the global market. As of today, due to their own historic encounters with heat and drought, both their import requirements to support domestic consumption, and any ability they might have to export are still to be defined.
Figure 2 shows a comparison of how much the globe’s most important exporters of maize and wheat have been able to move between March and the end of August 2022, compared to what they exported in the five-year period of 2017-2021.
Southern-hemisphere exporters, Argentina and Australia, have sprinted ahead of their prior-year averages, exporting roughly 6 million MT more than they did on average in the prior 5-year period. India, despite promising early on that it could feed to world with its surpluses (12 million MT of exports in 2022 were discussed), had to renege on plans due to late-season dryness and heat, and uncertainties about domestic consumption, regional domestic stocks, and rising retail prices in-country. Nevertheless, it exported approximately 2.5 million MT more than its 5-year average and has not yet expressed a major need for imports. China, too, with its enormous, claimed stocks, has so far been fairly restrained in expressing a need for maize and wheat imports.
Note also that there are smaller countries who have increased their exports. Bulgaria, Romania, and Kazakhstan benefited from much of the good weather Russia and Ukraine experienced in the Spring and took advantage of high grain prices to increase exports.
Although Russia and Ukraine fell below their February to August average by over 23 million MT, it is not so much because their production suffered. Russia’s current harvest is near record size, and Ukraine’s is surprisingly large, given the warfare occurring around its harvesting operations.
And critically, contrary to early assumptions, Russia has been able to move more than 60% of what it normally exports to those countries most-reliant on it and Ukraine. Even Ukraine has recently reached 30% of its previous average exports to those same countries.
Although the story about whether – and by how much – the world was able to respond to a huge export challenge like this one is not yet written, it’s clear that the feared worst-case has not occurred, where nervous exporters would have guarded any surplus they had and closed borders to stop grain movements and rising domestic grain prices.
It’s also clear in the 2020s that it is not sufficient to monitor the food production and export capabilities of only the world’s major producers. There are also smaller potential exporters whose production may sometimes exceed their needs and allow exports. The global picture is not complete without understanding their potentially impactful contribution.
For those countries we worried about in March 2022, those most reliant on imports from Ukraine and Russia, how have they done in replacing what they need? Remember that they were going out into a market with high, almost record prices, and serious, widespread concerns about whether the food stocks they needed would even be available in the market. Figure 3 shows the results for each.
Remarkably, most of these countries have procured more grain than they did on average over the last five years. While this measure is only a rough gauge of exactly what they need this year, it is nevertheless a positive picture. However, recall that they’ve been paying near record prices for it since 2020.
Of the countries that have not met their average maize and wheat needs (on the right side of the graph), consistently food-insecure Sudan and Somalia stick out, but they are not highly dependent upon maize or wheat imports (Somalia’s average import is about 60,000 MT per year). Bangladesh and Sri Lanka consume far more rice than maize and wheat and their maize and wheat demands are also not of great concern here.
Looking at Lebanon’s unmet needs in the above graph, we know that it is not generally considered one of the poorest nations in the world. But it is highly dependent upon wheat as a base of its national diet, produces little of it, is near bankrupt nationally, and lost its major grain storage facilities in a damaging explosion in 2020 in the capital. High food prices, high food and fuel-price inflation, a limited ability to purchase and store wheat, and a contentious domestic political environment mean that the country is, or should be, a food security concern for everyone.
Note also the extremely high import needs of Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia. In most years, their import needs are extremely large, and the cost of meeting them in the high-priced market of today has been an especially heavy burden, generating huge social, economic and political stresses in each country. Current-year inflation is above 80% in Turkey, and each of these four has seen internal turmoil associated with the rising food prices and impacts felt not only by the poor of each country, but by middle-income consumers whose aspirations are being truncated by high food prices (remember the Arab Spring?).
In late July, an extraordinary UN and Turkey-brokered agreement to allow grain and fertilizers to be exported from both Ukraine and Russia was agreed upon by the warring parties. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the agreement was: “for the world and it will bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine"2. Organized convoys of grain-laden ships began moving in mid-August from Ukraine’s southern ports through a corridor providing safe access out of the Black Sea and on to the world (see Figure 4, vessel locations via maritimetraffic.com).
Since the operation started, and through September 4, 2022, the corridor has exported just over 1,232,000 MT of maize, and 391,349 MT of wheat in 59 ships. Of the total exports of maize and wheat, roughly 8% has gone to very food insecure areas of Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon and Ethiopia. Almost 45% has been purchased for the large and heavily import-reliant countries of Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Western Europe and South Korea are the destinations of most of the other shipments. China, previously a major destination for Ukrainian grain, has so far contracted only 62,340 MT of maize.
Notable here is that with thousands of lives being lost in combat in eastern and southern Ukraine, all parties, even the combatants, have agreed that there is an additional vital global interest to be respected, to save other lives and livelihoods threatened by hunger. In the last few days, however, the “saving lives” rationale for the corridor agreement has been challenged by one of the warring partners, saying that most of the shipments are not going towards meeting the urgent needs of the most food insecure countries.
Since the Ethiopian and Sudan famines of the 1980s, the operational focus of global food security monitoring has generally been to turn the greatest focus toward the more local, discrete, and known food security problem areas, where the hazards (primarily drought, food prices, etc.), are often hyper-local in nature, and poverty is an underlying condition.
Nevertheless, as discussed briefly above, food security today in many other areas has become the product of a network of dispersed relationships, trades, production processes, complex logistics, shared opportunities and shared risks, and is often not solely dependent upon the ability to purchase food.
Indeed, the wide-ranging food insecurity generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows us nothing we haven’t already seen, in a variety of guises. Often referred to as a “supply chain” problem, it has been used most recently to explain pandemic-related disruptions, pricing pressures, and why the most common consumer goods have sometimes been absent from stores.
Applied within a global food security context, it is now an essential feature of understanding why both poor and non-poor populations have become unsure of being able to meet their basic food needs; why areas that have never before been food insecure, are now threatened by events and hazards far from their borders; and why food security monitoring, as it is most often practiced today, is not offering the types of insight needed for action at all decision-making levels (household, state, region, humanitarian, developmental, global).
The biggest challenges for adapting food security monitoring and assessment to new conditions and causes include these:
The food security monitoring, assessment, early warning and humanitarian response systems that are supposed to anticipate, inform, and avert or attenuate food insecurity, are not today fully “fit for purpose.” The quasi-global food insecurity caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clear demonstration that the world needs a constant level of coverage for an entire globe of potential food insecurity impact areas.
Why are these changes important? We are all witness to, and ultimately affected by, more frequent instances of national instability related to food prices and supplies, to a lessening ability of families to remain together in the areas they have lived in forever, to a greater need for peoples to migrate in search of a more livable life elsewhere, to a hollowing-out of gains in health and wealth made in recent years, and to the reduced aspirations many people in the world have for a better life. Improved agricultural and market monitoring on a global scale is one way to approach these challenges and move towards a more stable food-secure future.
1 Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Turkiye, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen