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How is the war in Ukraine affecting global food prices?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is raising food prices across the world. Developing and emerging economies are being hit hardest due to their reliance on the region for fuel and grain imports. Price hikes in these countries could spur further political turbulence and even violence.

Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower oil. Combined with Russia, it is responsible for more than half of global exports of vegetable oils. The region also exports over a third (36%) of the world’s wheat.

The war in Ukraine, as well as sanctions against Russia, have resulted in a massive decline in the supply of major staple foods. This has led to a rise in food prices globally.

Which countries are bearing the brunt of the crisis?

Many developing and emerging market countries rely on food imported from Ukraine and Russia – known as ‘the breadbasket of Europe’ – to augment local food production. For example, the top three importers of Russian wheat in 2018 were Turkey, Vietnam and Indonesia. Similarly Indonesia, the Philippines and Morocco imported the largest share of Ukrainian wheat that year. Instability caused by the war will therefore negatively affect the food supply in these importing nations.

Food shortages precipitated by the war are hurting food prices everywhere, with the hardest hit being developing economies where the world’s poorest live. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that the global Food Price Index (FPI) averaged 159.3 points in March 2022, up 17.9 points (12.6%) from February. This is the highest level since its inception in 1990. The latest increase reflects new all-time highs for vegetable oils (248.6 points) and cereals (170.1 points), highlighting the direct negative effect of the conflict.

Focusing on country-level statistics, the largest leap in food price inflation between February and March 2022 has been in developing/emerging regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Several of these countries have experienced higher food price inflation than the global average (12.6%) over this period. For example, Lebanon (396%), Zimbabwe (75%) and Turkey (70%) experienced the highest rate of food price inflation between February and March (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Developing and emerging market economies with the highest food price inflation change between February and March 2022

Source: FAO Food Price Monitoring and Analysis, 2022

Households in these countries devote a greater proportion of their total expenditure to the provision of food (see Figure 2). Specifically, the World Bank estimates that poor households in sub-Saharan Africa spend approximately 75% of their income on food. This compares with 10.8% for the average UK household in 2019/20.

Consequently, rising food prices reduce the real incomes of households, pushing more people into the food poverty trap – a situation where more individuals and households are unable to afford adequate and nutritious diet.

Figure 2: Share of income spent on food, by selected country

Source: Economic Research Service (ERS), United States Department of Agriculture

Sanctions on Russian oil companies and the planned bans on Russian energy exports have triggered further increases in energy prices in the international market. While the European Union (EU) is the largest collective buyer of Russian oil – buying 42% of Russia’s oil output in 2021 – the constituent countries have managed to diversify their economic base and begin importing more oil from elsewhere.

In contrast, many developing/emerging markets run a ‘monocultural economy’ –meaning they are highly reliant on single basic resources such as oil. For example, while oil accounts for 40% of Nigerian GDP, 70% of its budget revenues, and 95% of foreign exchange earnings, Nigeria remains the only member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that imports 95% of refined petrol for domestic use.

Consequently, movements in the international oil market affect local fuel prices in these markets. Eventually, the burden of higher costs of production, storage and transport is passed on to the consumers in the form of higher food prices.

Going back to Figure 1, countries with the highest rate of food price inflation are also often conflict-prone economies. Before the war broke out in Ukraine, some developing/emerging markets were already experiencing higher food bills due to internal conflicts or climate-related challenges.

For example, in 2016 the United Nations (UN) reported that Boko Haram bombings in Northern Nigeria disrupted trade routes between Chad and Nigeria, interrupting the supply of basic goods and causing local price hikes. It is likely that the war in Ukraine has worsened existing food price crises in some developing economies.

What next for food security around the world?

More research is needed to disentangle the extent to which current food price inflation can be attributed to internal crises in developing economies or the war in Ukraine. But we do know that the effects of both situations on food prices reinforce one another.

Situations where food becomes increasingly expensive or insufficient can incite further civil conflicts. This was seen during the Arab spring in the early 2010s – an event that emerged partly in reaction to high cereal prices. These anti-government protests in the Middle East followed international food price inflation, bad weather conditions and shrinking farmlands, together with high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the corrupt political classes.

A decade later, a similar set of factors could combine and cause both political turbulence and a further escalation of prices. The combination of fragile institutions, political instability and non-diversified economic structures are central factors that amplify the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on food prices in emerging economies. Where these challenges are not addressed, it may be that food prices in these economies do not revert to the pre-crisis era, even if the war in Ukraine were to end.

Where can I find out more?

  • The World Bank blog gives an insight into amplifying effect of the conflict in Ukraine on food crisis in Africa.
  • The United Nations Brief provides an in-depth discourse on the impact of war in Ukraine on global food systems.
  • The International Monetary Fund blog details how the war in Ukraine is affecting different sectors in several parts of the world.

Who are experts on this question?

  • Lotanna Emediegwu
  • Sascha O. Becker
  • David Ubilava
  • Alfons Weersink
Author: Lotanna Emediegwu
Photo by AndrijTer from iStock
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