Beyond Black Sea Grains: The Global Malnutrition Crisis Caused by Russia’s War in Ukraine

This year’s headlines about Black Sea grain trade belie an important fact: Russia’s war in Ukraine is not only disrupting global markets for wheat, maize, barley, and vegetable oils—Ukraine’s main agricultural exports—but has also driven up prices for nutritious foods produced elsewhere and slowed the provision of lifesaving assistance for the most acute forms of malnutrition. As a result, malnutrition has worsened for millions worldwide. What steps are being taken to stem this crisis, and what more should happen?

Q1: How has Russia’s war in Ukraine affected global agricultural production and prices?

A1: Disruptions in Black Sea agricultural exports have affected agricultural markets globally. Despite the recent extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), exports from the Black Sea remain restricted: In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected Ukraine’s wheat production to reach 20.5 million metric tons in the 2022–2023 season, down 62 percent from the 2021–2022 season, and its wheat exports at 12.5 million metric tons, down 67 percent from 2021–2022. The operationalization of the BSGI has allowed Ukraine to export 13.7 million metric tons of grains—an average of 3 million metric tons per month—since August 2022. Though significant, this still represents a 40 percent decrease from 2021 export levels, which averaged 5 million metric tons per month. In combination with other factors, restricted exports from the Black Sea contribute to higher prices of cereals and vegetable oils. Worldwide, cereal prices are 9 percent higher than this time last year, and following a general decline, the price of vegetable oils has increased since last month, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index .

In the countries reliant on the Black Sea for their imports of wheat, maize, barley, and cooking oil, prices have risen for these commodities—and for other, more nutritious foods. Maize and barley are important sources of animal feed, so high cereal prices mean high prices of meats and dairy products as well. In November, global dairy prices were nearly 12 percent higher than this time last year, and global meat prices were more than 4 percent higher than last year.

In addition to restricted exports from the Black Sea, the war’s impact on global energy prices has pushed the prices of all foods even higher. Food prices are highly correlated with fossil fuel prices, as energy is required across food systems for producing, storing, transporting, selling, and preparing foods. Global food prices reached an all-time high in March 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In November, global food prices were down but remained nearly 40 percent higher than 2020. Fertilizer prices have also been driven up by the Russia-Ukraine war—through direct sanctions on Belarus’s fertilizer exports, impacts on Russia’s fertilizer exports despite exemptions from sanctions, and impacts of high prices of natural gas, a feedstock for nitrogenous fertilizer. Continued disruption of fertilizer markets will affect food supplies and prices in the future, with higher fertilizer prices leading to lower application of fertilizer and lower yields, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Worldwide, farmers applied 137 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare in 2018; African farmers used less than 20 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. In May, the African Development Bank warned that fertilizer-price increases could lead to a 20 percent decline in food production on the continent.

When food prices rise, households maintain their caloric consumption by eating greater amounts of staple foods, which are relatively cheap, and lower amounts of more nutritious foods, which are relatively expensive. In a food import-dependent country, for example, a family may have consumed a combination of staple foods, dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables prior to the war. Today, the same family may have reduced their dietary diversity, shifting their consumption toward calorie-dense staple foods and away from more nutritious foods. These choices may well result in increasingly poor nutrition and health for millions around the world.

The United Nations recently estimated that in 2020, before the disruptions of the Ukraine war but with early impacts of Covid-19 becoming evident, 3.1 billion people could not afford the least expensive form of a healthy diet, estimated to cost about $3.54 per day. Today, the Global Diet Quality Project continues to assess the affordability of healthy diets, recently publishing the first-ever results of a global survey on diet quality. The project reported that in 34 out of the 41 countries surveyed, less than half of the population is consuming diets that contain all five food groups commonly recommended for daily consumption in national food-based dietary guidelines worldwide. Food price inflation due to Russia’s war in Ukraine will continue to put healthy, diverse diets out of reach for so many.

Q2: How has Russia’s war in Ukraine affected the provision of humanitarian assistance?

A2: Russia’s war in Ukraine has affected the provision of lifesaving assistance far away from the Black Sea for a multitude of reasons. Prior to Russia’s invasion, in 2021, 193 million people—an all-time high—were acutely food insecure and in need of urgent assistance across 53 countries/territories, according to the most recent Global Report on Food Crises . Because of the war, countries that had planned to use limited resources to address humanitarian crises instead used the same funding to meet other urgent needs—to assist Ukrainian refugees, for example, or to help Sub-Saharan African farmers afford fertilizer.

Humanitarian organizations also needed more funding to provide the same amount of lifesaving assistance as they had previously provided. Because of the war, prices of wheat and ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF), whose main ingredients include vegetable oil and dairy, spiked after Russia’s invasion. Further, elevated fuel prices increased the cost of delivering lifesaving assistance. These factors combined—increased costs for food assistance and the fuel to deliver it—meant bigger bottom lines for aid agencies. In March, the World Food Program reported that the war increased its monthly operating costs by $29 million . In June, UNICEF needed an additional $12 million to purchase RUTF for children in the Horn of Africa.

Finally, dominating headlines, the Russia-Ukraine war decreased the visibility of other crises worldwide. In the Horn of Africa, for example, over 36 million people suffer the effects of four—and nearly five—consecutive failed rainy seasons. According to UNICEF ’s deputy regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Rania Dagash-Kamara, Russia’s war in Ukraine “led to a much-delayed response for us.” By July, “when the world turned its attention to the drought crisis . . . we had already seen a lot of suffering—more than seven million children under five were wasted across three countries.” In 2020, the latest date for which data are available, 45.4 million young children were found to be “wasted,” or weighed too little for their height, and of these, 13.6 million were severely wasted. UNICEF estimates that this year’s global food crisis will push an additional 260,000 children into severe wasting in 15 crisis-affected countries.

The caloric needs of children are high relative to their age, and the nutritional needs of women are greater while they are pregnant or lactating, so women and children are particularly vulnerable in such crises. Around the world, women are more food insecure than men—in 2021, 31.9 percent of women were food insecure compared to 27.6 percent of men worldwide, representing a greater disparity than 2020, according to results of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale . Humanitarian emergencies can exacerbate gender inequality and power imbalances, giving women even less agency to provide nutrition for themselves and their children. In humanitarian emergencies, limited access to clean water and health services can further increase the risk of malnutrition.

Q3: What is being done to address these food and nutrition crises? What more needs to happen?

A3: The U.S. government’s response was swift and comprehensive . Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. government and partners increased investments in humanitarian assistance for the Horn of Africa, for example, to $1.8 billion in FY 2022, up from $806 million in FY 2021. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided an unprecedented $200 million for children suffering from severe malnutrition and encouraged an additional $280 million from other philanthropic donors for the same purpose. President Biden expanded the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative to eight additional countries, including those exposed to the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine. USAID also launched the Agriculture Growth and Resilience Initiative for Ukraine (AGRI-Ukraine) to support Ukraine’s agriculture sector in the midst of war.

Largely because of U.S. leadership, threats to food security are in the global spotlight like never before this century. In May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened foreign ministers from approximately 30 countries for a Global Food Security Call to Action meeting at UN Headquarters, and Secretary Blinken cohosted a Global Food Security Summit around the UN General Assembly in September. Also in May, under the German presidency of the G7 in 2022, the G7 launched a Global Alliance for Food Security and G7 leaders issued a separate G7 Statement on Global Food Security at the G7 Summit in June, reflecting high-level deliberations on the issue. The UN FAO proposed a global Food Import Financing Facility (FIFF) in the spring, and this fall, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a temporary Food Shock Window —informed by the FIFF—to help countries experiencing agriculture- and food-security-related crises. The IMF disbursed the first tranche of funding under the Food Shock Window in November.

Notwithstanding the laudable steps already taken by the U.S. government and its partners, including multilateral institutions, numerous threats to global food security remain. An end to Russia’s war in Ukraine is necessary to stabilize global agriculture, fertilizer, and energy markets and would help improve food security and nutrition in the short term. Russia’s war aside, the global community must continue to grapple with the lingering effects of Covid-19, the multitude of effects of climate change on food security and nutrition, and the impacts of regional conflict on agricultural and food security.

As development partners respond to the most immediate agriculture and food-security challenges, attention should remain focused on making healthy diets more affordable—through steps that include diversifying agricultural production, investing in storage and transportation infrastructure, encouraging regional and international trade—and on improving nutrition among the most vulnerable. The U.S. Global Malnutrition Prevention and Treatment Act , which was the result of bipartisan, bicameral leadership on global nutrition, provides initiative in this direction. Without targeted nutrition assistance for the most vulnerable, inadequate access to nutrition will affect cognitive and physical development, with follow-on effects for individuals’ education, health, and incomes, with implications for the human capital of communities and nations for generations .

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Anita Kirschenbaum is a program coordinator for the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program