Russia's War on Ukraine Creates a Global Food Crisis U.S. Must Address | Opinion

We've all seen videos of the innocent victims of Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Yet, as that war grinds on, there may be millions of additional victims—those who depend on Ukraine's agricultural exports for their sustenance.

Ukraine has long been known as the "breadbasket of Europe," due to its fertile fields and robust agricultural exports. Along with Russia's own massive agricultural sector, the two nations together produce roughly one-third of the world's wheat and barley and nearly half of its sunflower oil.

Now, five months into the war, many of Ukraine's fields have been left fallow and many of its grain storage and processing facilities have been destroyed. Only recently has Ukraine's harvested grain been able to be readily exported again after a naval blockade of Ukraine's key port city of Odesa by Russia.

A recent agreement between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, has begun to release the grain to global markets again, but Russia still continues to inflict damage on Ukraine's grain supply, killing the owner of one of Ukraine's largest grain producing and exporting companies recently when it hit the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv with 50 rockets.

Recognizing the impending crisis, the U.S. and its allies bolstered Ukraine's ground-shipping network and helped expand its grain storage capacity before the summer harvest. These efforts, however, cannot make up for the shortfall caused by the war—a shortfall whose consequences could be devastating in countries far from Eastern Europe.

While the Biden administration has worked to expand American food aid around the world, the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine are leading to growing food shortages in places already facing extreme food insecurity, like Yemen and Afghanistan, where rising prices, local conflicts, and extreme weather events have resulted in growing levels of hunger. Now that crisis has been greatly exacerbated by Putin's war.

This is not just a problem for those countries immediately affected by the food emergency. Rising hunger around the world has serious U.S. national security implications. Food insecurity exacerbates existing challenges such as poverty, violence, and social, racial, and religious tensions. This, in turn, creates political instability, often resulting in popular uprisings, terrorism, and mass migration—both internally and externally.

Some suggest that this is part of Putin's strategy to break up the NATO alliance. By creating food shortages that lead to greater instability and drive new waves of immigrants to Europe, Putin hopes to fan the flames of intolerance and drive a wedge between allies. Countries that have performed so admirably in aiding the millions of refugees from their neighbor Ukraine may balk at another influx of refugees seeking to survive famine abroad. Meanwhile, Putin's information operations in Africa are seeking to blame the West for food shortages.

 A stork flies above a wheat field
A stork flies above a wheat field as a combine harvester of TVK Seed agricultural company harvests wheat on July 29, 2022, not far from Myronivka, Ukraine. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

This pending crisis requires the United States to address the immediate need to prevent potential mass starvation in vulnerable parts of the world. We must increase food aid abroad at the same time we plan for the national security implications of a world food crisis. Once mass starvation begins, it will be too late for an effective response.

In July, following a letter that I and a bipartisan group of House colleagues sent to the Biden administration, USAID announced that it would provide $200 million to UNICEF to effectively double the global procurement and distribution of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF)—the gold standard for treating severe malnutrition in children. This follows a letter that Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and I sent earlier in the month calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide Congress with strategic plans for addressing the growing international hunger crisis in the short-, medium-, and long-term.

It is critical that the White House outline its strategy now for how to continue exporting grain from Ukraine while protecting the most vulnerable populations from a war-induced famine. The U.S. has both a moral and strategic imperative to lead in this crisis and prevent the suffering in Ukraine from spilling over into other countries and regions. A more stable and peaceful world is in everyone's interest, except for the dictators and autocrats like Putin who thrive on fear, anger, and instability.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He recently returned from an official visit to Poland and Germany to assess the allied response to the war in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.