The Russia-Ukraine war has driven large increases in international prices for wheat, maize and vegetable oils and Global food prices have reached “a new all-time high,” posting a significant leap in March, the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says, “hitting the poorest the hardest.”
FAO’s newly released Cereal Supply and Demand Brief estimates that at least 20 per cent of Ukraine’s winter crops that were planted, may not be harvested.
But, it also points to a worldwide cereal production of 2,799 million tonnes, up slightly from 2020, with rice production reaching an all-time high of 520.3 million tonnes.
And global cereal use in 2021-22 is projected to reach 2,789 million tonnes, including a record level for rice, with increases also expected for maize and wheat.
Global cereal stocks are forecast to rise by 2.4 per cent by the end of this year, from their opening levels, largely due to higher wheat and maize stocks in Russia and Ukraine, on account of lower expected exports.
FAO lowered its forecast for world trade in cereals in the current marketing year to 469 million tonnes, marking a contraction from the 2020-21 level, largely due to the war in Ukraine and based on currently available information.
Expectations point to the European Union and India increasing wheat exports, while Argentina, India and the United States ship are likely to ship more maize – partially compensating for the loss of exports from the Black Sea region.
Harvest of COVID-19
Explaining that the neediest “face greater exposure to the pandemic and are the most affected by rising food and fuel prices,” he pointed out that prices for staple foodstuffs such as wheat and vegetable oils have soared, “imposing extraordinary costs on global consumers, particularly the poorest”.
Repercussions of war
Conflict has driven up international prices for wheat, maize and vegetable oils, as war in the Black Sea region spread shocks through the markets trading in these staples.
The FAO Food Price Index averaged 159.3 points in March, up 12.6 per cent from February when it had already reached its highest level since its inception in 1990.
The Index tracks monthly changes in the prices of a basket of commonly traded food commodities. Last month’s prices were 33.6 per cent higher overall, than March last year.
Driven by soaring wheat and coarse grain prices – largely as a result of the war in Ukraine – the FAO Cereal Price Index was 17.1 per cent higher in March than it was just a month earlier.
Over the past three years, Russia and Ukraine combined, accounted for around 30 per cent and 20 per cent of global wheat and maize exports, respectively.
“In the space of a few weeks, the number of countries slapping on food-export restrictions jumped by 25 per cent, bringing the total number of countries to 35,” the World Bank Group President David Malpass writes in his blog. “By the end of March, 53 new policy interventions affecting food trade had been imposed—of which 31 restricted exports, and nine involved curbs on wheat exports,” he says quoting the latest data.
Malpass says that while food crises are bad for everyone, they are more devastating for the poorest and most vulnerable. The reasons, he argues, are twofold. First, the world’s poorest countries tend to be food-importing countries. Second, food accounts for at least half of total expenditures of households in low-income countries.
“In 2008, the food crisis brought on a significant increase in malnutrition, particularly in children,” Malpass wrote in his blog. “Many households pawned family valuables to buy food.”
Studies showed school drop-out rates of as much as 50 per cent among children from the poorest households. “Social and economic damage of that kind cannot be easily reversed,” the World Bank Group President says.