War Will Bring Famine Unless America Acts

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The infernal war in Ukraine has unleashed another doomsday horseman: famine. The rapidity of many battle deaths has obscured the many other deaths that can occur slowly, not from war but from the interaction of food and oil markets.

Despite an emerging transition away from fossil fuels, the force still pushing the flowering grains of the world’s breadbaskets is oil. Oil still powers the engines that plant and harvest, the fertilizers that grow grain, and the trucks, barges, and ships that deliver food to the hungry.

These markets together define the ability of much of the world to feed itself.

Nitrogen fertilizer, for example, is mainly produced from ammonium nitrate derived from natural gas. Other petroleum-based products fuel herbicides and pesticides protecting crops from yield loss due to weeds and insect infestations.

Disruptions to supply chains therefore directly affect food grains, but also create delivery problems with plant nutrients and oil-based chemicals.

As US aid to Ukraine has grown from hundreds of millions of dollars to a proposed $33 billion in military and humanitarian assistance, and as NATO’s resolve has hardened in the face of Russian aggression and atrocities, none of this directly addresses the combined food and energy challenges that lead to starvation.

Russia’s invasion has also triggered a set of policies that, taken together, are making life worse and worse for hundreds of millions of food insecure people, especially children.

Russia and Ukraine together account for about 30% of world wheat exports, roughly equal to the United States and Canada. Ukraine also accounts for half of the world’s exports of sunflower oil, a major source of cooking oil in the world. Russia and Belarus are the world’s leading fertilizer exporters, and Black Sea ports are a major source of food and fertilizer for African, Asian and Middle Eastern destinations.

Russia’s invasion has effectively blocked these essential supplies, causing shortages, soaring prices and exacerbating food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people who, even in times of prosperity, spend half or more of their meager food income. They have no cushion for the price increases they are currently facing.

Poor farmers struggling for self-sufficiency will also lack the fertilizer they need to feed their own families this year and next.

Not only will millions of people be malnourished or worse because of this war; their suffering will spill out into the streets, causing civil unrest in many countries.

In total, these indirect victims will number in the tens or hundreds of millions. Unfortunately, many countries, including China, have already responded by banning food and fertilizer exports, which will only further destabilize markets.

In late April, the World Bank reported that trade disruptions from the war in Ukraine would keep commodity prices high and rising through 2024.

We must act now to avoid the worst of these consequences. Many Americans may not want to hear this difficult message, and it will take time to accept it, just as it took time to formulate our collective response to the Russian invasion.

Among the actions needed by the United States and its Western and Asian allies:

  • Suspend biofuel blending requirements, freeing up corn and soybeans and the fertilizers used to produce them for use in producing food for the world’s hungry and hungry.
  • Allow temporary use of conservation reserve acres here and set-aside acres in Western Europe to grow crops, helping to restore more adequate food supplies, especially where those acres fail to protect land that is highly vulnerable to erosion or flooding.
  • Avoid taxes and export controls that divert grain from malnourished people to livestock feed, reversing the more than 40 protectionist measures taken since the start of the war, including the hoarding of maize stocks by China and Indonesia’s limits on palm oil exports.
  • Provide funds for a global “Food Finance Facility” to help poor countries maintain essential food imports by borrowing on concessional terms.
  • Maintain and expand our national SNAP, WIC, school meals and other nutrition programs to meet the nutritional needs of our own population.

Agricultural production is one of America’s strongest technological combinations and powerhouses. By taking these steps, the United States can regain a position of global respect and influence beyond military might and strengthen its ties with its allies. By showing what it can do for others in the face of the current food crisis, America can also begin to regain its international legitimacy and leadership.

Carlisle-Ford Runge is McKnight University Professor Emeritus of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Robbin S. Johnson is a former vice president of corporate affairs at Cargill.

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