Global Food in an Era of Volatility: How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Exposed the Need to Reimagine Food Diplomacy

By Tish Van Dyke

Towards the end of 2022, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Turkey, Ukraine and the UN managed to get a convoy of ships from the port of Odessa to safer Turkish waters. People living in food-strapped regions could once again get the grain they needed to feed their communities and the world could avoid a much-feared famine. 

It’s easy to be lured into thinking that our worries are over. However, if we do that, we risk losing one of the most important lessons learned since Russian invaded Ukraine a year ago: it’s time to stop using food as a weapon and begin making food diplomacy part of the proactive planning and futureproofing we must do in an increasingly unpredictable world.

The problems highlighted by Ukraine’s inability to ship grain were not just the result of the war, but rather a perfect storm that is impacting our broken global food supply. The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, protectionist trade policies, panicky markets, and the ensuing chaos that followed the invasion saw prices soar and millions, mostly in already food-strapped regions such as the Middle East and Africa, facing the dire consequences of famine. 

Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine and Russia supplied 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of barley, 15 % of maize and 75% of sunflower oil. Ukraine’s food exports alone fed 400 million people. During much of 2022, it’s estimated that 25 million tons of Ukrainian corn and wheat – the equivalent to the annual consumption of the world’s least developed economies – was trapped in Ukraine due to Black Sea blockades. 

Before the war, the pandemic wreaked havoc on our global food supply, with labor shortages and shipping disruptions. The war only made the situation worse. For months, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sounded the alarms about the situation. The numbers were staggering, but the impacts of hunger go far beyond empty stomachs and lost lives. Bloomberg reported that boys in Kenya were being prioritized for schooling, while girls as young as nine-years-old were being married off for dowries that could ease economic burdens on desperate families. 

The market reaction was head-spinning. The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that by May, over 23 countries imposed limits on exports. At the peak of export bans, 17% of global food and feed exports were impacted.

As we see far too often, the ripple effects of our broken global food system are more likely to impact poorer economies. Households in emerging markets spend 25% of their budgets on food. In sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is as high as 40%. In poorer markets, governments can’t afford the subsidies needed to increase the help for those facing famine and death, especially if they are reliant on imported energy, another sector that was caught in global turmoil. 

The concept of food diplomacy is not new. Throughout history, states have competed and fought for control of food access. In the 1990s, we saw the rise of “culinary diplomacy” where countries (several through government sponsored programs) use their foods to “win hearts and minds through stomachs.” It’s a powerful concept. However, the war in Ukraine and the ensuing chaos that it placed on our global food systems has taught us that it’s time to take that concept a step further. It’s time to usher in the new age of food diplomacy. 

This new age requires solutions that:

  • Address both the fluidity and fragility of our global food supply and marketplace.
  • Reflect the efforts of governments, businesses, NGOs, and broader stakeholder communities who are working collaboratively to fix our food system at local, national, regional, and global levels.
  • Transform our food and agriculture system so it is more resilient and more accessible than ever before.
  • Enable us to use food as a strategic tool that can help stem the potential chaos that comes with future political, humanitarian and climate crises.  

As we move towards the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, let’s welcome the new age of “Food Diplomacy 2.0,” one that recognizes the certainty of climate change, stems the impact of hunger and famine, acknowledges the realities of geopolitics, stabilizes markets, and de-weaponizes nutrition security.