‘A giant leap up’: Food prices just soared to a record high, and the UN says it may trigger a global food crisis

Extreme hunger is hitting the African Sahel and other at-risk regions, UN agencies say, as disrupted global food supply lines cause prices for staple crops to soar.

Food prices have hit a new record high, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) latest food price index, which records the price movements of the most commonly traded and consumed food crops. 

The FAO food price index averaged 159.3 points in March, up from the then-record 140.7 points in February. The March index is the highest it has been since the tool was created in the early 1990s. Prices are also 12.6% higher than they were in February, the second-highest month-to-month increase in history, according to FAO economist Josef Schmidhuber.

That increase represents “a giant leap up,” Schmidhuber said at a UN press briefing on Friday.

Staple foods such as cereals, vegetable oils, and meats have hit all-time highs, while the prices of other products such as dairy and sugar also rose significantly.

When taking questions from journalists, Schmidhuber said that the FAO did not yet have a clear understanding of how the ongoing conflict in Ukraine was affecting overall food prices, but noted that the war had clearly driven up prices of common grains including wheat and maize. Together, Russia and Ukraine provided around 30% of the global wheat supply and 20% of maize exports over the past three years, Schmidhuber said.

The war has also complicated the logistics of global food supply chains, the FAO said. Shipping capabilities in the Black Sea have been severely curtailed by the Russian army, which in March was blocking hundreds of ships carrying grain to global markets from leaving Ukrainian ports.

A global food crisis

In March, the UN warned that a prolonged conflict in Ukraine could lead to global food prices rising by as much as 20%, which could trigger a global food epidemic of historic proportions.

In some parts of the world, this is already happening.

“The situation is worsening,” Ollo Sib, a researcher and regional advisor for sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel at the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), said at Friday’s press briefing.

Food insecurity is rising sharply in the Sahel and West Africa, Sib said, and the number of people suffering from hunger in the region has quadrupled since 2019. 

There are 43 million malnourished people spanning across central Africa’s Sahel belt, which stretches from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, six million of whom are children.

In both the Sahel and in Ukraine, last year’s agricultural output was especially bad, the UN officials said, which has compounded this global moment of food insecurity. Farmers in the Sahel have also had a difficult time gaining access to fertilizers—of which Russia is a major global provider—due to rising prices stemming from the conflict, further limiting domestic agricultural output.

Sib said that food prices in the Sahel had already risen 30% to 50%, forecasting immense suffering in African and Middle Eastern countries which are set to be hit first and hardest. 

Some Middle Eastern countries, including Yemen and Lebanon, “are already on their knees in terms of hunger,” Arif Husain, chief economist for the WFP, said in March. “Many of these populations…are a step away from famine.”

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