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Food shortages loom as conflict roils Ukraine

Country under siege provides more than half of the grain to the UN's world food assistance program

Harvesters at work in a Ukrainian wheat field in 2017.
Harvesters at work in a Ukrainian wheat field in 2017. (Pavlo Pakhomenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will cause shortages in developing nations already struggling with food insecurity, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., warned during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.

Ukraine was the source of more than half the grain in the United Nations World Food Programme last year, Scott said, noting that Russia and Ukraine together accounted for 30 percent of global wheat exports.

“As this invasion continues, it’s more and more unlikely that Ukrainian farmers will be able to plant their crops, or fertilize their crops, or harvest their crops, or export any of this food supply into the world,” Scott said.

An official with the U.N. World Food Programme described it as “a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe,” he said.

‘Second- and third-order’ effects

Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said the effects were already being felt in their areas of responsibility.

The World Health Organization just declared a humanitarian disaster in Ethiopia, and food insecurity is a big part of that, Townsend said.

“I think it is imperative that we continue to fund USAID because they invest in a robust way on the African continent,” he said, referring to the U.S. agency that administers aid and development assistance to foreign countries. “I think it’s one of the best investments we make there.”

McKenzie noted that Egypt and Jordan are both heavily reliant on imported wheat.

“We are looking aggressively now for short term solutions that will bring wheat and other foodstuffs in for the short term,” McKenzie said. “Obviously you’re going to have to find other global sources rather than Ukraine and Russia, and that’s going to be hard to do, with a third of the market coming from those two areas. This is a very pressing concern.”

Sasha Baker, deputy under secretary of Defense for policy, said Yemen also faces food shortages.

“What we’re seeing now is the second- and third-order consequences of Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” Baker said.

Scott agreed, noting that 13 million people in Yemen receive some sort of assistance through the U.N. food assistance program.

“The pain and the suffering that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] has caused is only beginning to be felt,” he said. “The world is going to be hurting for several years because of what he’s done.”

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