World Food Program chief David Beasley raised the alarm Wednesday on Capitol Hill about the possibility of global food shortages next year if Russia does not lift its blockade of Ukrainian grain exports and send its own fertilizer to world markets.
“And that is going to be a crisis beyond anything we’ve seen in our lifetime,” he warned.
Beasley noted that in 2008 when global inflation and food prices last saw a severe spike, civil unrest, protests and riots followed in nearly 50 nations.
“The situation today is much, much worse, and we are already beginning to see destabilization take place in many countries — Sri Lanka, we saw what happened in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso,” Beasley said. “We are seeing protests and riots in Kenya, Pakistan, Peru, Indonesia. And I could go on and on.”
In addition to destabilization and the potential for mass migration, Beasley said the numbers of people severely food insecure were at 276 million before Russia’s invasion. Now, they are projected to be 345 million. Within that number, he said, 50 million people in 45 countries are “knocking on famine’s door.”
Beasley welcomed U.S. support to the WFP, which totals nearly $6 billion this fiscal year. But he said other countries have not stepped up enough.
“As we heard, China has only given us $3 million,” Beasley said. “The Gulf states with unprecedented oil prices, which is compounding the food crisis, should be stepping up in ways beyond anything we have seen before.”
The price of a barrel of crude oil was $107 on Wednesday, which has dramatically driven up the cost of transporting food. Beasley told lawmakers that his agency, which was already struggling to fund its work, is now facing added costs of $74 million each month because of shipping costs.
The WFP chief separately briefed members of the Senate and House foreign relations committees on the same day that Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska addressed lawmakers, appealing for more weapons for her country to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
Before the February 24 invasion, Ukraine was a top global exporter of grain, producing enough food to feed 400 million people worldwide. WFP buys half of its grain from Ukraine.
“When you take enough food that feeds 400 million people off the market, what do you think is going to happen? It’s going to devastate the poorest of the poor,” Beasley told lawmakers.
'War on food security'
The WFP chief, whose agency was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, said when the war began, he went to the southern port of Odesa in Ukraine, where more than 5 million metric tons of grain passed through each month on its export journey.
“As I tweeted and said to President [Vladimir] Putin, ‘Regardless of your views of Ukraine, you cannot bring an absolute declaration of war on food security around the world, and you cannot impose famine upon nations around the world. Open up these ports. If you have any heart at all, open up these ports,’ ” Beasley recounted.
The United Nations has been working for months with Russia and Ukraine, and with Turkey as a mediator, to forge a deal to get Moscow to end its blockade. Both Beasley and U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who also briefed senators, said they are hopeful a final deal will be announced in the coming days.
Thomas-Greenfield noted that the Kremlin has been effective in its disinformation campaign, telling developing nations that Western sanctions are responsible for the food crisis and the rising cost of fertilizer, of which Russia is the world’s top exporter.
“When in fact there are no sanctions on their agricultural products, there are no sanctions on their fertilizer,” Thomas-Greenfield underscored. “They can move their agricultural products. They can move their wheat if they wanted to do it. But they would prefer to blame the rest of the world, thinking that that will get them more support from the world. And I think they have failed.”
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told senators that one of the things USAID is working on is helping African countries lessen their dependence on fertilizer from Russia, which is no longer a reliable source.
“So, we are seeking to diversify and also to ensure in Africa production of fertilizer, as well as food sovereignty in countries that are too import-dependent,” Power said.
Criticism of Russia, China
Lawmakers expressed concern at the situation and Russia’s disinformation campaign. They also criticized China for aligning with Russia as food insecurity grows.
“China is responsible, as well as Russia, for allowing Russia to use food as a weapon of war — for the denial of food,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez said.
“We have continued to press the Chinese to step away from what we see as a really bad relationship that they have established with the Russians in terms of supporting their activities in Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield told senators. “And it goes against what the Chinese themselves have indicated is a priority — and that is the protection of the [U.N.] Charter and the sovereignty of borders.”
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Power said she is heading to the Horn of Africa, where the U.N. says 18.4 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya need food assistance because of conflict and severe drought.
Thomas-Greenfield said she will also be leaving for the region in about 10 days to engage with countries about the food crisis.