The impact of the Ukraine war on food supplies: 'It could have been so much worse'
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Experts on global food security sounded the alarm when Russia first invaded Ukraine a year ago. Food prices could surge worldwide because Ukraine and Russia are such big producers of wheat and other foods. But the very worst predictions of global hunger have not come to pass. NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman is with us to share what went well. So, Nurith, good morning.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
FADEL: Before we get to the good news, why was there so much concern about food prices when the invasion first started?
AIZENMAN: Yeah. So first off, there's this outsized role that Russia and Ukraine play in the world's food supply. Together, they provide a third of the world's wheat, and they're also major sources of fertilizer, cooking oil, feed grains. And that's particularly significant for countries in the Middle East and Africa. But on top of this, Russia invaded at a time when food prices were already at historically high levels due to previous droughts and bad harvests in the U.S. and other countries. So there wasn't a lot of wiggle room to deal with a sudden drop-off in supply.
FADEL: Yeah. And at first the impact was actually pretty severe, right?
AIZENMAN: Absolutely. I talked to Joseph Glauber. He's a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Let's take a listen.
JOSEPH GLAUBER: The first couple of months, prices were quite high and quite volatile. If you were to look at wheat futures, they had jumped almost 60%. Corn and soybeans were up 15 to 20% in those first week or so. But it could have been so much worse.
AIZENMAN: And he says that's because pretty soon, prices started to fall as it became clear that the upcoming spring wheat harvest in a lot of countries was going to be quite strong. Harvests in the United States and Canada bounced back. But the really big bumper crop was in Russia. They just got lucky.
FADEL: OK. But Russia had all these sanctions. But those sanctions didn't apply to foodstuffs like wheat, right?
AIZENMAN: Exactly. And then in August, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine hammered out an agreement that, though imperfect, has mostly allowed Ukraine to resume exporting its wheat through ports in the Black Sea.
FADEL: And Ukraine still has wheat to export?
AIZENMAN: Well, right off the bat, they had this wheat that they'd already harvested before the war started. And then in terms of the planting and reaping after the war began, it is down 30 to 35%. But it's a testament to the grit of Ukrainian farmers that they've still been able to harvest a substantial amount. That said, this Black Sea port agreement expires next month. So a key question is whether it will be renewed.
FADEL: OK. So what can we expect for global food prices this year then?
AIZENMAN: Well, this pre-invasion level of food prices that we're currently at is still a historical high.
AIZENMAN: And there're already some major ongoing hunger crises in places like Yemen, the Horn of Africa. So we're kind of still in this precarious situation where if just one thing goes wrong - a bad harvest somewhere, a worsening twist to the war in Ukraine - food prices could still really spike.
FADEL: NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much, Nurith.
AIZENMAN: You're welcome.
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