The war in Ukraine and its consequences for the global food supply with Catherine Bertini

April 11, 2022

Catherine Bertini discusses the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food supply, on International Horizons

Catherine Bertini appears to the left in front of a wheat field being harvested and hands holding wheat superimposed to the right

Russia's war on Ukraine has led to thousands of civilian deaths, thousands more soldiers’ deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. But this is only the beginning of the human toll of the Ukrainian war. A number of commentators have observed that perhaps the most important humanitarian consequence of the war may have to do with its effect on the availability and price of food around the globe. What will the war’s effect on the global food supply look like?

Catherine Bertini, a top expert in food security issues and former director of the U.N. World Food Programme, talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the world’s food supply, the decisive actors, how it is all related to price increases, the main victims of a food shortage, the violence that this can foment, and the possible need for dietary alternatives in response to shortages.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:15

Russia's war on Ukraine has led to thousands of civilian deaths, thousands more Russian and Ukrainian soldiers' deaths, and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. But this is only the beginning of the human toll of the Ukrainian war. A number of commentators have observed that perhaps the most important humanitarian consequence of the war may have to do with its effect on the availability and price of food around the globe. What will the war's effect on the global food supply look like?  

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Catherine Bertini, longtime executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, from 1992 to 2002. Thereafter, she served as the U.N. undersecretary for management from 2003 to 2005. And she is the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate. Currently, she's a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the chair of the board of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (the acronym for which is GAIN), and the chair of the executive board of the Crop Trust. Thank you so much for being with us today, Catherine Bertini.

Catherine Bertini  01:49

You're most welcome. Thank you for the invitation.

John Torpey  01:51

Great to have you. So as I noted in the introduction, beyond the deaths of combatants and civilians and the creation of these massive flows of displaced persons, the war in Ukraine is likely to have major effects on the world food supply. But before we get into the current situation, perhaps you could start by giving us some background on the world's food situation before the Ukraine war erupted.

Catherine Bertini  02:17

Sure, thank you. We often say that there's enough food in the world to feed everyone. It's just the distribution that is off. Why? Because the hungriest, poorest people cannot afford to grow or purchase their own food, or it's too far away from them the markets or or they don't have the ability in order to access the food. In, well, what we might say is "normal times" -I'm not sure there's any such thing anymore -there are about 800 million people who are desperately poor not sure where their next meal is going to come from, or how the next day will provide for food for their family. So that is mostly people who are desperately hungry. However, some of that number are people who are living amidst war and natural disaster. And of course, that number will have gone up with the war in Ukraine.

John Torpey  03:15

So, these commentators who talk about the consequences of the war on the global food situation note that Russia and Ukraine have contributed enormous proportions of some of the aspects of that global food supply, in particular grains like wheat and corn. So I wonder if you could talk about what are the consequences of this inevitable disruption in food production and supply coming out of these two huge countries. I mean, Russia, after all has (whatever it is) nine time zones; it's an enormous place. But Ukraine has historically been the breadbasket of the region, but the fact is, it's a breadbasket for the world as a whole. So what are the consequences of this war on the global food supply?

Catherine Bertini  04:03

There are huge consequences of the war. We are seeing them already in terms of prices of food. If anybody listening has been to a grocery store lately, you'll find much of the food has a much more inflated price than it did even a week ago and certainly a month ago. Food prices were going up because of fuel prices before the war. Not going up to be unaffordable for most, but certainly it's starting to be unaffordable for many in this country, people who are poor and who are struggling to make ends meet and to find enough food, to buy enough food to feed their families. So, they've already seen a crunch, we've all seen a crunch. 

Now though, the prices are going up much higher and they will all around the world. Why? In large part because of the grains and the fertilizer ingredients that are produced and exported by Ukraine and Russia. Together they export about 35% of the world's wheat, they export much of the world's maize or corn, they have more than 50% of the world's oil: seed oil and vegetable oil, used in cooking around the world. And between those two countries and Belarus, who are also implicated in this war, most of the ingredients that go into fertilizers are produced in this region. And that means that fertilizers are less available, which means it's higher priced. And this is true for farmers buying fertilizer, whether they're in the US or Ethiopia. 

In addition to that, there are many countries that are very reliant on the purchases from these countries themselves. So, in other words, on one hand, prices are going to go up worldwide because of a decrease of availability; on the other hand, some countries just won't get the grain, because they rely on Ukraine and Russia for the grain, and/or on Belarus for fertilizer. 

John Torpey  06:08

Right, I gather Egypt is the leading importer of wheat. And so a country like Egypt is especially vulnerable. I mean, there are differential consequences of these factors on different populations. For the United States, it can be an issue certainly for people who are less well off, but generally speaking, we're probably not looking at an increase in starvation. But around the world, it seems to me that we may well be looking at that kind of situation. I mean, for people who barely can make ends meet, don't know where their next meal is coming from, what to us would be a small increase in the price of cooking oil, let's say, can have a major impact on whether or not they can put food on the table. So can you talk a little bit about that sort of differential effects of these impacts of the war?

Catherine Bertini  07:06

Certainly. We see in some countries, who have a high reliance on Russian wheat or Ukrainian wheat -countries like Lebanon and Egypt would be very high on that list -we will see a stark problem very soon. Not necessarily yet, because some of the exports will be still, for instance, in the sea on the way to those countries, but soon, because Russia has stopped its exports altogether. And Ukraine is still trying to get food out of the ports, harvesting. However, what will the next harvest be like? We have no clue, we don't know what this harvest will be like, because a lot of the farmland has been under Russian occupation or invasion. And many of the farmers have not been able to go to the fields. So, then, when once they do, they have to ship their grain to a port and the port has to be functioning. So there's a lot of ifs even right now to get that food out.  

So for countries that are relying on those countries' wheat products, there are going to be huge issues. Now, first of all, Lebanon and Egypt are examples of countries where wheat-based products (bread in particular) are hugely important, big part of the diet and part of the culture. So not being able to have them is more of a crisis added to the fact that there just won't be enough food. 

What we saw the last time this happened on a major scale, in 2008 to 2011, was a lot of violence, especially started by young men in the cities who did not have access to bread or only at high, very high prices. And one of the ingredients of the so-called Arab Spring was the lack of bread and or bread available only at very high prices. And of course, one of the inputs into that was when Russia decided not to export, and they were a big exporter to Egypt. So we can expect, based on history, that some of that history will repeat itself. And I think that those countries and others have to pre-plan as much as they can in order to try to, for instance, put in substitutes for wheat to be able to help sustain the populations.

John Torpey  09:37

So now we've sort of gotten into the politics of food. And I think that's a really important question certainly that I want to ask, which is: the UN Security Council exists, it's meant to regulate conflicts around the world. Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech there the other day demanding more assistance against the Russians, but basically it was a performative kind of thing, because Russia has veto in the Security Council. And so any proposal it doesn't like it simply can veto. So the question is are there institutions around the world that can do anything about addressing this kind of situation? And how cooperative are they?

Catherine Bertini  10:25

The answer is yes, absolutely. Because the Security Council would be needed in order to end the war -it would be nice if it could be used for that purpose- but that's currently out of the question because of the Russian veto power, but it has really nothing to do with humanitarian programming around the world. So humanitarians can go anywhere where they're invited in order to help. They can go into Ukraine or any countries around Ukraine, they can go into any countries in bordering the Mediterranean or anywhere else, where they're invited and they're in many of these countries already, in order to help with food security issues or other related issues. So it isn't a problem to find people to know what they're doing to help. 

It will be a problem to be funded, because they would have to convince the major governments, the major donors of the world who are governments, to contribute to these efforts. But that probably won't be a problem, either. Because the US and Europe, Japan, Australia, they don't want to see crises in the streets, violence in the streets in any of these countries to further destabilize countries that are already in some cases already weak.

John Torpey  11:39

Right. So, you know, one of the things that we're also talking about with regard to energy is strategic reserves that the United States, for example, has on hand, and those can be introduced into the supply when there are shortages coming out of conflict zones and that sort of thing. Are there similar kinds of backup plans, so to speak, with regard to food? Is there something that one can invoke in this sort of situation?

Catherine Bertini  12:11

Many countries have food reserves, and a lot of countries in Africa started to put these together after the famine in 1984. I remember years ago -I mean, those of us old enough to remember years ago -the pictures of the starving Ethiopian children. And one of the outcomes of that was the creation of national food reserves in many countries. So the status of the volume of what's available in those countries, I do not know, but they do exist, and they would be potentially able to be used. Ethiopia, for instance, allows donors to borrow from that if they've pledged to replace it. So if the US said we are going to provide 100,000 tonnes of wheat to Ethiopia, and makes that pledge formal, then Ethiopia would actually open its coffers, and use that 100,000 and replace it when the US grain arrives.

John Torpey  13:13

So another point that you've gotten into in a previous answer that I wanted to follow up on is the matter of shipping. You know, there's been a lot of attention given to the fact that they've been all kinds of bottlenecks in global shipping, and that's created bottlenecks in terms of availability of various kinds of goods. And this has to do with simply ports that are overwhelmed. And basically, it's about the return of the economies in the post pandemic, insofar as we're in a kind of post pandemic period. Can that be addressed? Is that being addressed? Is the shipping situation one that contributes significantly to this food problem?

Catherine Bertini  14:02

Shipping does and the backups in ports, which are getting better I understand in the US, anyway, are important for all of our exports and imports. And certainly it's important worldwide. There's another issue that the US has that's been problematic for a long time, and that is something called cargo preference. Any aid that is shipped from the US proper has to have a certain percentage of it shipped on US flag ships, and they're more expensive than ships flagged in other places. 

Now, the US shipping industry will argue that that's because they're better, we pay our staff better, we pay union wages, that our ships are in better shape, and that we need them for potential use for military purposes as backup to the military. Well, the latter argument, as far as I'm concerned, is moot because we've been fighting wars now for some decades post-World War Two and we've never, ever used these commercial US ships for that purpose, but that's what they are arguing. That's why the percentage is in there. But it also cuts down on the options and increases the cost for shipping American food overseas.

John Torpey  15:17

So perhaps another question that arises is: what role does the private sector play in all this? I mean, they can't necessarily create food out of nothing, obviously, but they must be an important partner in addressing a crisis like this.

Catherine Bertini  15:34

Private sector is critical. First of all, farmers are private sector, right? So, if we think about farmers and what they can do; I talked to a reporter in Chicago recently, who had been talking to Midwest farmers about what they were doing, and people who were now starting to grow wheat were either shifting into wheat because of the higher prices of wheat, or expanding on their wheat production, because they were trying to find (I don't know what the agriculture word is) for every nook and cranny of land possible in order to grow as much wheat as possible to get that into the market. So one thing farmers can do worldwide is to maximize growing, especially of grains and seeds for oil.  

But then also, we need to be looking at it on a large scale, at what other kinds of products could replace wheat. If in fact, there's not enough wheat in the market or, again, the price is so high that people throughout the world cannot afford it. Cassava for instance, which is a plant grown in Africa, can be milled and essentially used to make bread. Many other products like that can be used to make bread; they're not necessarily widespread. But part of a humanitarian or an aid program by a government, for instance, could be to help teach people how to use cassava or other other plants to be able to make bread when you're out of your normal ingredients. So there's a lot of different pieces that could go into that. And one of the crops that's not yet affected, and hopefully will not be is rice. And certainly, there are a lot of different recipes that can be made from rice, some of which could be used to help in the shortfall of wheat.

John Torpey  17:37

Right, right. So you're an expert on this, and I'm not. The question that occurs to me is what vulnerabilities of the food supply system am I not thinking about that's weighing sort of heavily on your mind? I mean, what have I sort of not asked that I obviously should be asking about?

Catherine Bertini  18:00

Well, you ask a lot of good questions, John. But let's start with trade, it's really important to keep trade flowing, and to avoid the natural reaction to hoard. Now, countries hoard and people hoard. So countries may say, "this is going to be such a crisis, we don't want to ship any of our grains out of the country, because we're going to need them here." Once one country does that, there's a ripple effect, because the whole system that works now is going to be undercut by all of a sudden losing that piece of it comes from that country. So in fact, it'll backfire on that country, even though it might sound good. And this might be where politics comes in, you know, when the leader says, "I'm going to keep all the food for our country and not share it with anyone else because we need it." But that usually is absolutely the wrong thing to do, because it'll disrupt the rest of the market, and it'll come back and slap in the face over the long term.  

And there are, last I looked, seven or eight countries that have some sort of a restriction, not necessarily total ban. Except for Russia, of course, then Russia would have to deal with whether or not people would buy their outputs anyway, but certainly some countries still would, but they have banned exports for now. So exports and help support continuing the export import system that we have around the world. That's number one, but then think about it from a personal perspective too.  

Hoarding, personally, is also a bad idea for the same reason. I remember when rice was in very, very high demand and short supply in this country. And I had people -men usually, who in these cases weren't even the cooks in the house- they would go to the store and buy these big bags of rice to bring home and put in their basement just in case. Well, what does that do to the woman who actually feeds her family every day on rice, and she can't get any, because this other guy's never going to use it; bought it just in case. So, we have to be careful of those tendencies ourselves, too. So trade and kind of hoarding (is not such a nice word, but the best one I can use, I guess, in this case) are important to to be careful about.  

Then I think the other thing is that we all can be more creative about the foods that we use for what we're making. Soon as anybody goes to the grocery store and finds how expensive that prices are rising, I think they'll be looking for alternatives. And we should be looking for creative alternatives, and we should be provided those by the nutrition community.

John Torpey  20:57

Right. Well, I'm eating a lot more grapefruits these days. I don't know if they seem to be showing up in Costco in large numbers, and I like them, I remembered that I liked them. But so as somebody who also tends to think about things comparatively in terms of history, is there any experience of this kind that is kind of comparable when you think about what's going on today? Given the centrality of Ukraine and Russia, at least to the grain supply in the world, I wonder whether there's been this kind of disruption or this kind of risk since the Second World War, but you would know more about it certainly than I do. 

Catherine Bertini  21:43

Yes, there were twice, as far as I understand it. Well, the aftermath of the war, of course, took a while before countries were able to become as self-sufficient as some are. And then Ukraine wasn't even a country. But it was the breadbasket, as you said, still. In the 70s, there was a crisis as well as one starting in 2008. And both of them started with increasing fuel costs. And so that ties into agriculture, it ties into shipping, it ties into being able to run your tractors and your combines and be able to get your goods to the port and ship the goods. And then also, as those prices increase, the price of fertilizer increases, so the price of basic farming increases, and in the 70s, then in 2008 through 2011, we had these kinds of crises.

John Torpey  22:48

So, I'm trying to think now, sort of about the likely outcomes here: let's assume what I guess I'm increasingly assuming as a kind of not very good case scenario where this all drags on for a while and Ukraine is not able to get back to its usual level of production, certainly for the next year, let's say. What happens then? Who replaces that? I mean, you talked about farmers in the Midwest in the US getting into the wheat business because the prices are appealing and that sort of thing. I mean, can the market respond that quickly?

Catherine Bertini  23:36

There's going to be more than a year, probably a couple of years, of high prices and lower availability. And how much longer it goes in that depends a lot on how much longer the war goes on. And, but even if the war stopped, hopefully (and wouldn't it be wonderful if the war stopped tomorrow?) there's a big impact on this harvest and the next harvest already. So we are looking at least a couple of years' issue. What happens in that space? Yes. I believe that there's enough wheat still on the market, for instance, to be able to sustain in most places, however, is going to cost a lot of money. 

Rice can pick up a lot of the slack I guess, for lack of a better word, if the rice market is not impeded, and it's not threatened by the Ukraine war. But it could be rice, who knows something else? As I said, these are almost like dominoes in terms of how countries react and what that does to trading. So it'll come down to the people who are living on margins; there will be more people living on margins, because prices are going up, and they have less availability for food. So we really have to think seriously about social safety nets. And, be sure that they're strong enough for the next couple of years, in the US and throughout the world, to be able to help sustain people and to help avoid what we saw in the last crisis with violence in in some countries.

John Torpey  25:25

Sure. Well, maybe one last question, which gets back to some of the first things you said that in normal times, we have this kind of notion that there's enough food in the world, it's just a question of whether or not people can afford to buy it or get access to it in terms of actual physically getting a hold of it. You know, let's in the hopeful scenario, hope that that comes back, that normal, more or less normal, situation returns. You know, I mean, one of the things that's happened over the last couple of few decades is that the global population has grown wealthier, and the extremely poor have declined in number. And this is one of the reasons we switched from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals, right? That goal of reducing the number of desperately poor people was achieved ahead of schedule. So the question is to what extent is that in fact, the case and to what extent are the numbers of people who face food insecurity in a normal kind of world, how much is that declining? Or is that going to have reversed course, because of the consequences of the war? I mean, how do you see that playing out?

Catherine Bertini  26:44

We're going to have more people in need for a while. So, we're going to have people displaced from from the war. And we're going to have this eight hundred million-plus number of desperately hungry people; that number has gone up recently because of COVID, in addition to the other issues. So, the combination of that, plus what's coming in terms of prices will probably increase that number. And we will have to find a lot of different creative ways to help those people to be able to build their own livelihoods so that they don't have to live on a day to day basis without knowing where their next meal is coming.

John Torpey  27:30

Well, a sobering analysis of the situation, but that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Catherine Bertini of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for sharing her insights about developments in the global food situation as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan McKay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. I especially want to thank my colleague, Ellen Chesler, for helping make this interview possible. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us, and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.