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The impact of the Ukraine war on food supplies: 'It could have been so much worse'

"Extremely worried."

"The timing couldn't have been worse"

Those were some of the concerns that NPR heard last year from experts on global food security after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Taken together the two countries supply a major share of the world's wheat and other food products.

So there was widespread fear the war would lead to a surge in food prices – and dramatic worsening of world hunger.

But a year later the worst predictions have not come to pass.

To understand why, NPR spoke with Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Here are four takeaways:

The initial impact on food prices was indeed massive.

Glauber noted that before the war, Russia and Ukraine's combined wheat production accounted for about a third of global need. The two nations are also important sources of fertilizer, cooking oil and feed grains such as corn. And they are particularly important suppliers to numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa.

So when Russia invaded Ukraine, "all of a sudden the concern was that you had both [countries] potentially being knocked out of the global market," said Glauber. And because most planting of, for instance, wheat, is done in the fall, farmers in countries outside of Russia and Ukraine "didn't really have a chance to adjust and plant more. The crop had already been planted."

Adding to the challenge was the fact that global food prices were already at record highs due to a spate of previous droughts and poor harvests in other countries that are also important suppliers – including the United States. With food stocks so tight, there wasn't going to be a cushion to deal with a sudden drop in supply from Russia and Ukraine.

The result, said Glauber, is that in the first couple of months after Russia invaded, "food prices were quite high and quite volatile. Wheat futures jumped almost 60%. Corn and soybeans were up 15 to 20% in the first week or so."

It didn't help, added Glauber, that at various points during this period many food-producing countries responded to the invasion by banning exports of an assortment of locally produced foodstuffs in order to conserve their supply for domestic use.

For instance, Indonesia briefly barred export of palm oil – which accounts for 60% of the world's vegetable oil. And India temporarily suspended export of what looked to be an unusually large crop of wheat.

Altogether the export bans "affected somewhere around 15% of agricultural trade at one point," said Glauber. "And that only exacerbated the price volatility."

But a spate of good harvests soon changed the picture.

Yet, says Glauber, "It could have been so much worse."

That's because by spring, both the price hikes and the export bans started to ease as it became clear that climatic conditions favored much better wheat harvests than in years past.

"There was a big rebound in production in the northern plains of the United States and in Canada," said Glauber. "And Europe actually had a very good harvest."

But the biggest bumper crop by far was in Russia – which lucked into a record-breaking 22% boost in its wheat production over the prior year. And while many nations have imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, they have chosen to exempt Russia's export of food products.

While Glauber thinks this was the right call, he says the situation does pose a "conundrum."

"It means that Russia is profiting, in fact, from a war that they're largely responsible for," he said.

A remarkable deal between Russia and Ukraine has also helped.

By contrast Ukraine's crops have taken a big hit.

"About 25 to 35% of Ukraine's historical wheat production was in areas now occupied by Russia," said Glauber. "And over the last year wheat production has been off by about 35%."

Still, he said, the amount that Ukrainian farmers did manage to produce amounts to "a sizable harvest given the adversity that they faced. It's really a testament to them."

And they have been able to export it as a result of an agreement that Turkey brokered between Russia and Ukraine last August. This "Black Sea Grain Initiative" allows both nations to continue sending ships bearing grain through ports there.

The arrangement is hardly ideal, said Glauber. It requires each country to send inspectors to certify that the ships are only carrying grain. "And Ukraine claims that Russia hasn't set enough inspectors" – causing costly delays that cut into Ukraine's profits.

At the same time, said Glauber, "it's amazing" that the agreement exists at all. "I mean you have an active war going on. Within hours of the agreement being signed, a rocket hit Odessa," he said. "So I think a lot of people thought that it wouldn't really have much impact or that it would be a short-lived treaty. But in fact, here we are, several months later with grain moving through those ports."

There is still a risk of price surges in the months ahead.

That said, the Black Sea agreement expires next month. So, Glauber said, "if Russia were to pull out then we're right back to a point where very little of that grain that's in Ukraine would actually make it to the rest of the world."

What's more, while food prices reverted to pre-invasion levels for much of the past year, those levels are still a record high compared to the last decade.

This has exacerbated numerous ongoing hunger crises in places ranging from Yemen to the Horn of Africa. According to estimates by the World Food Programme, dozens of countries are experiencing double digit food inflation, and 349 million people across 79 countries are currently considered "acutely food insecure."

Among the drivers of this continuation in high prices, said Glauber, is the fact that, notwithstanding all the strong harvests of the past year, "what we weren't able to do is have so much additional harvest that we were able to rebuild stocks. So as we're starting this year, the forecasts for stocks are about the same as for what we were holding last year."

In other words, the world remains in a somewhat precarious situation where, if just one thing goes wrong — a worsening twist to the war in Ukraine, a bad harvest in some important supplying nation – global food prices could spike.

Glauber said, so far, the climactic signs are at least pointing to another round of decent harvests.

But once again, he said, "we don't have a lot of cushion."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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