The links between war and hunger

November 17, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Powerful piece in the Economist earlier this month stressing a link that is sometimes lost in the coverage of hunger crises – the link to ‘men with guns’ as they put it. Some excerpts:

‘At first glance, Vladimir Putin has little in common with an Ethiopian foot-soldier. One man has palaces and nuclear weapons, the other a shack and an old Kalashnikov. Yet both illustrate a global problem: that food supplies are often disrupted by men with guns.

Of the 828m people who do not get enough food, nearly 60% live in countries racked by conflict. Armed violence is the single greatest obstacle to ending hunger, says the UN’s World Food Programme.

In normal years, Ukraine is a huge supplier of calories. Last year it provided 10%, 14% and 47%, respectively, of global exports of wheat, maize and sunflower oil. It usually ships 95% of these through its ports on the Black Sea. Roads, rail and river are dismal alternatives: Ukraine’s total exports of grain fell from 5m tonnes in February to 1.4m tonnes in March, after Russia invaded. By last month, the deal [between Russia and Ukraine on Black Sea food exports] allowed 4.2m tonnes to flow through the Black Sea route alone. Keeping it open is essential.

Other rogue regimes have weaponised food even more directly than Russia does. In Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, streets are filled with hungry women and children. The price of the local staple, teff, is three times higher than in other parts of Ethiopia. Hundreds of thousands are starving. “People ask for food everywhere,” says a doctor at the region’s main hospital. “Tigray is hell on earth,” says the head of the Tigray Development Association, an NGO.

Global hunger has many causes, from poverty (recently exacerbated by covid-19) to drought (made more common by climate change). All these are made worse by war. Of the ten countries with the largest absolute numbers of acutely hungry people, all but Sri Lanka are conflict-riven (and Sri Lanka has seen huge riots).

In Somalia the government is not trying to stop food from reaching citizens, but local terrorists are. Al-Shabab, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, controls great swathes of the country. A “gentlemanly agreement” with aid agencies once allowed at least some aid to cross front lines, says an adviser to Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. But these days al-Shabab blocks almost all aid from entering its territory. That includes much of Somalia’s best farmland, which is enduring its worst drought in four decades.

“Farmers need peace to produce,” says David Laborde of IFPRI. Where war rages, fields are burned, cattle are slaughtered and farmers are drafted. Armies grab fuel, leaving little to power tractors and irrigation systems. Roads become hazardous. In Congo, where dozens of armed groups plunder and rape, local women “might not want to walk five minutes down the road to sell [their] food”, observes Mr Laborde.

Elsewhere, conflict has simply brought food production to a halt. In parts of the Sahel, including northern Nigeria and Chad, jihadists terrorise farmers so they will flee to cities and destabilise the government. Afghan farmers have endured many conflicts in recent years. Many were forced off their land by fighting between an elected, American-backed government and the Taliban, a jihadist group. 

Other breadbaskets could perhaps export more. This year Australia had its biggest wheat crop ever (36m tonnes, up from 33m in 2021) and Russia a record summer grain harvest (yielding 94m tonnes, 10m more than the previous record in 2018). Meanwhile America and Europe reported less disastrous harvests than feared; Brazil and India, not usually big wheat exporters, managed to sell some of their crops abroad.

All this has helped restrain global prices (though they remain much higher than in 2021). But next year this mix of lucky weather and damage control looks unlikely to repeat itself. Russia may not see another whopping crop. America and Europe are still getting too little rain, which may reduce the yield of the wheat that has just been planted. In Argentina, the biggest wheat exporter in the southern hemisphere, drought is forecast to cut the next harvest from a projected 20m tonnes to 13.7m. Floods and a lack of port capacity will make it hard for Australia to export much more.

Mr Putin’s war has also made fertiliser costlier, by raising the price of natural gas, a key input. Fertiliser is 2.5 times as expensive as in early 2020, according to CRU, a consultancy. During the first half of the year Europe’s fertiliser industry worked at 30% capacity.

Farmers in rich countries have coped by using old stocks of fertiliser, or skipping some applications not vital to near-term productivity. Next year they may simply decide to use less, reckons Seth Meyer of America’s Department of Agriculture. That could hurt yields. Many poorer countries have already run out of fertiliser. In Colombia and Peru, governments have sought to calm rural unrest by subsidising the stuff. Gro Intelligence, a data firm, calculates that the projected reductions in nitrogen applications next season could result in a loss of production of wheat, maize, soyabeans and rice of up to 216trn calories worldwide—enough to feed 240m adult males for a year.

Just as violence fosters high food prices, high food prices can foster violence. In June The Economist built a statistical model of unrest, and found that food (and fuel) prices were a good predictor of it. Back then we estimated that outbreaks of unrest—as recorded by ACLED, a global research project—would double in many countries in the year to come. So far that has happened in 17 countries (comparing levels since June with those in the same period of 2021). The biggest rise has been in poor countries, where unrest is up 39%, compared with 5% across all countries.

Even if the current hunger crisis only lasts for a year, the consequences will be felt far longer. A short spell of malnutrition can stunt young bodies and brains. The World Bank says that the share of ten-year-olds in poor and middle-income countries unable to read a simple text has increased from 57% in 2019 to an estimated 70% this year. The pandemic and hunger are probably the main causes.

That may be among the worst legacies of Mr Putin’s senseless war. Millions of children worldwide will grow up to be less intelligent, and thus lead poorer and less productive lives. 

November 17, 2022
Duncan Green