War is driving hunger globally

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Not only is the Russian war on Ukraine reducing cities, towns and villages to rubble, it is also damaging Ukraine’s agricultural capacity, contributing to global food insecurity.

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Julie Marshall, Canadian spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Program, was asked how she would describe the overall food security situation in Ukraine.

“In Ukraine right now, what we’re seeing is around 45 per cent of the country are concerned about where they find food, so that’s nearly half the population,” she replied. “Food is one of the top three concerns for the people there — safety and fuel for transport are the other two.”

The humanitarian situation is much worse in cities that are encircled by Russian forces, Marshall continued. “We are deeply concerned that in places like Mariupol, where there’s no access to commercial goods, (there’s) no food going in. They are running out of food and water. And WFP and other agencies just don’t have access to these embattled cities.”

How are things in Kharkiv and Sumy?

“Much the same,” Marshall told the Whig-Standard in a telephone interview. “I’d say Mariupol seems to be the worst at the moment.”

Marshall revealed that two interagency humanitarian convoys recently managed to get through to Sumy and Kharkiv. The WFP delivered 330,000 loaves of freshly baked bread to Kharkiv. And she said the WFP is expanding its deliveries.

“What we’re doing is delivering flour to the bakeries and also fresh bread to the people that need it,” she explained. “We want to actually get up to around 990,000 loaves in the coming weeks.”

What are the challenges of delivering food supplies to conflict zones?


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The World Food Program did not have a presence in Ukraine before the conflict started, Marshall answered, “so we’re building our operations from the ground up.”

The WFP has already opened three bases in Ukraine and hopes to expand its operations to a total of seven bases across the country. “What we’re doing is shipping processed food in and purchasing grain from inside Ukraine to help feed people,” the WFP official said.

“Obviously, it’s really difficult in any kind of conflict area like this. And it’s even more difficult this time around, because we didn’t have a presence there, which, of course, we normally do in other countries.”

Why does the WFP purchase grain from Ukrainian farmers? Is it to support them and to reduce length of the supply lines?

“Absolutely,” Marshall replied. In most cases, WFP tries to purchase our food locally. It helps the local residents as well. And it’s just more effective. You don’t have to worry about the transportation. We don’t have to worry about going through customs.”

Humanitarian law

Do the World Food Program and its humanitarian partners enter into negotiations with combatants on both sides in order to ensure safe passage for humanitarian convoys?

“We operate under humanitarian laws, so we’re independent. And we have to make sure that we have confirmed unimpeded, safe access before we can move our convoys in, just to make sure that our staff, our partners, our beneficiaries are all safe. So we have to make sure that is in place before we go into any embattled areas.”


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The WFP pre-positions supplies and then works on getting the food to where it needs to go, Marshall explained. “We’re constantly trying to get food in and negotiate our way into these cities to make sure that people are fed,” she added.

As the WFP has scaled up its mission in Ukraine, the UN agency aims to reach 3.1 million people with food assistance. The WFP says it needs $590 million to meet the needs of internally displaced people and refugees over the next three months. In addition to food assistance, the UN agency is providing cash to people in need.

Do WFP personnel face danger on the ground in Ukraine?

“Yes, obviously,” Marshall answered emphatically. “We work in a conflict zone. We have to be extremely careful. We have extensive training.

“We put ourselves in the hands of the host country, and when they are not able to support us, to keep us safe, we have to turn to UN agency security systems to keep us safe.

“We work in 80 different countries; 60 per cent of the work we’re doing right now is in conflict zones. That is what is driving hunger globally.”

Spring planting season

How much of an impact will the war have on Ukraine’s agricultural yields this year?

“It’s going to have an impact if we can’t get farmers into their fields safely,” Marshall responded.

There are a number of factors to be considered when it comes to the 2022 spring planting season. “Obviously, it’s the manpower,” the WFP official said of wartime labor shortages.


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“It’s getting to their machinery. It’s getting to the diesel, because diesel is in short supply. It’s been made part of the war effort — in some cases taken from farming equipment. So, we’ve got all of those aspects fighting against us. But hopefully they can get some planting done, even if it’s decreased in areas where there’s no fighting. So we might be able to see some more crops planted, but it’s going to be a huge decrease.”

What are Ukraine’s main agricultural exports?

“Between Russia and Ukraine, they account for about 30 per cent of the world’s exports in grain and wheat. So that’s going to have a huge effect on countries around the world and WFP, as well,” Marshall said.

“Any disruption in the production and supply is going to drive prices up, and we’re already seeing that. There’s also a hold or freeze on an estimated 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize that are being held up in the Black Sea, that’s not moving. So the consequences are that other countries have to look elsewhere for food.”

The Kyiv Independent, an online Ukrainian news outlet, reported last week that, “Russia is blocking grain exports from Ukrainian ports with a naval blockade.” And the English-language outlet also alleged that, “Russia is deliberately destroying Ukrainian granaries.”

Marshall explained that reduced agricultural exports will have the biggest impact on the Middle East and North Africa, both of which import large amounts of food. “Places like Lebanon import 50 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine. Yemen imports 22 per cent, and Tunisia 42 per cent.”


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The “knock on effect” of the crisis is already being felt in the form of rising prices. “Cooking oil has gone up 36 per cent in Yemen and 39 per cent in Syria. Wheat flour has gone up 47 per cent in Lebanon and 15 per cent in Liberia and 14 per cent in Palestine,” she said.

“All of this is going to have a huge effect” on people who were already suffering from hunger and struggling with higher food prices before the war began, Marshall asserted. “Add to that: conflict, COVID, climate change; these rising food prices are really going to knock a lot more people into starvation.”

What needs to happen in the coming days and weeks to mitigate rising food insecurity due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

“The first thing that needs to happen, and the most important thing, is a stop to the crisis, a stop to the war,” Marshall said. “Until that happens, we need to be resourced. WFP and other humanitarian agencies need the resources so we can continue to save lives in Ukraine.”

When it comes to the global situation, Marshall urges those donor nations that have been generously supporting the WFP response in Ukraine to also support its work elsewhere.

“We hope that they don’t take these funds from other countries, other emergencies, that they continue to support countries, like Afghanistan and Yemen and South Sudan, where the needs are rising,” she said.

“I want to thank Canadians,” Marshall added. “They really have been forthcoming with funding.”


This is a terrible crisis, isn’t it?

“It really is,” Marshall responded. “I don’t think everybody really anticipated the impact this would have globally. And we’re seeing the impact in Canada as we’re looking at rising food prices here. We can really see how connected the whole world is. It is awful to see. It really is.”


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