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The impact of the war in Ukraine on the global food supply

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

From the moment Russia invaded Ukraine, it was clear the ripple effects on world hunger would be severe. That's because the two countries provide a massive share of the world's supply of key foods like wheat, corn, barley and more. And aid organizations warned that as the war drove up prices, people around the world would no longer be able to afford these foods. Now, less than two months into this war, it looks like those fears are coming true.

Joining us now to talk about this is NPR global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So what are the signs that you're seeing that show this war has already had an impact on global hunger?

AIZENMAN: Well, it's hard to precisely parse the impact of the war specifically because it's hit in the midst of a whole bunch of other calamities that were already driving up food prices to record levels - a series of droughts in different parts of the world on top of the economic consequences of the pandemic, which had already cut into so many people's ability to pay for food. But that said, just in the last weeks, yes, this already bad situation has definitely gotten worse. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization tracks this food price index. And between February and March, it spiked by 12% - a giant leap - to an all-time high.

And so I spoke with Bob Kitchen. He's vice president of emergencies for the aid group International Rescue Committee. And I asked him, how has that price spike affected people?

BOB KITCHEN: We are seeing the number of people who are food insecure and in urgent need of food aid rising rapidly across at least four areas of the world that we're monitoring. So yes, I think we're seeing alarming numbers right now.

CHANG: And where are the places where people seem the hardest hit?

AIZENMAN: Well, it's the places that were already suffering and that just have had no buffer to absorb these price hikes. Afghanistan - a month ago, 55% of the population was facing crisis levels of food insecurity. Now it's gone up 10 points to 65%. We're talking families literally having to feed their kids every other day, every three days. West Africa is also in a very dangerous state. Right now, 27 million people are going hungry there. But aid organizations predict, by June, 11 million more people will fall into that status. And there's also a lot of hunger in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, where there's this incredible humanitarian crisis from the conflict in the Tigray region.

CHANG: This is devastating. What's the solution here? Is there even one?

AIZENMAN: You know, Kitchen and others I spoke with say this can be solved with money. Even with the loss of food from Ukraine and Russia, there is still enough to feed people. The issue is the way the reduced supply drives up prices. So basically, cash is needed to help people cover their basic needs.

The problem is that even before the war started, wealthy countries have not provided enough funding for food aid. And now there are signs that some countries are coming up with money to help Ukrainians by diverting it from their existing food aid programs. So it's not like there's more money being given because there's this additional crisis. It's the same pot of money.

This week, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called out the global community in a very stark way. He said, of course all the money and attention the world is giving to Ukraine is very important. That attention is necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: But even a fraction of it is not being given to Tigray, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and the rest - a fraction. I don't know if the world really gives equal attention to Black and white lives.

AIZENMAN: So he says he's hoping the world will, quote, "come back to its senses and treat all lives equally."

CHANG: That is NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much, Nurith.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY EPIC SONG, "LITURGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.