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Conflict and Hunger Part IV: Food Utilization

This post is Part IV of a five-part series discussing the many ways that violent conflict impacts hunger. The next key aspect of food security is food utilization, or put another way, are people able to meet their nutritional needs? Here, we take a look at how conflict impacts this, with specific attention to the crisis in Ukraine. Read Part I and find links to the other posts here.

When it comes to food security, there is a difference between having enough calories and meeting your nutritional needs. An overabundance of calorie-dense food – especially processed and packaged foods that also contain high amounts of salt or sugar – does not necessarily contribute to food security, because part of food security means having the right kinds of food: nutritious, clean and safe. The availability of this food, the ability to safely store and prepare it, and our own confidence as consumers all play a role in food utilization.

Unfortunately, in a violent conflict, when much of the food system and society is unstable, these are the kinds of foods that tend to be less available. During a crisis, people often turn toward shelf-stable,  processed foods that are quick to prepare, easy to carry, readily available and inexpensive. We saw this in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia in 2020, where as much as half of the population turned to eating less overall or eating more highly processed foods to get through the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the main concerns in the Ukraine conflict is the nutritional well-being of people displaced by violence within Ukraine and those who have fled the country as refugees. As people are displaced from their homes and local communities, their ability to procure safe, nutritious food is often hampered. In some cases, humanitarian aid can help make up the difference, but not everyone has access to this. We can surmise from recent reports that humanitarian agencies are facing significant obstacles in reaching people who are internally displaced within Ukraine.

The other aspect of food utilization to consider in a conflict is safe handling and storage of food. With attacks impacting both personal security of civilians as well as critical infrastructure that provides power for cooking and sanitation for clean water, conflict increases the risk of illnesses that come from contaminated food. Conflict also makes it harder for people to get treatment for diseases that can impact their nutrition and overall health, such as diarrhea, fevers, diabetes and, of course, COVID-19.

Here, too, the effects cascade to other populations. Host countries welcoming refugees can encounter obstacles in ensuring that everyone – including native residents – has enough food and that there is capacity in the healthcare system to meet the growing need. In addition, countries relying on exports from Ukraine and Russia may turn to less nutritious or less safe food available locally or in alternative markets.

With all of these interconnected systems, one of the most important aspects of food security is how stable and reliable the food system is. We turn to that in the next post on stability.

Conflict and Hunger Part V: Stability

This post is Part V of a five-part series discussing the many ways that violent conflict impacts hunger. The next key aspect of food security is stability. Is access to food reliable, even during a crisis? Here, we take a look at how conflict impacts this, with specific attention to the crisis in Ukraine. Read Part I and find links to the other posts here.

Stability, in short, means that food production, access, and utilization are reliable and resilient. Put another way, if we can eat today, how sure are we that we will be able to eat tomorrow?

There are two reasons this is important. First, instability and unpredictability change the way people behave. Farmers, for example, become more hesitant to trade, invest or diversify their work. For example, after the civil war in Mozambique in the 1980s and 1990s, farmers tended to focus on subsistence farming and reduced their participation in the market, meaning there was less food produced for other people to purchase and consume. Similarly, farmers may shift away from livestock or away from crop diversification, since doing so seems to pose less risk in the short-term, even if it may have longer-term negative effects.

In Ukraine, one of the current concerns is that farmers may not fertilize their grain crops because of high prices and instability. That would lead to a drastic reduction in the wheat crop for 2022, which could cause further shortages and higher prices globally into 2023. Moreover, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) notes that fertilizer costs are expected to rise globally, adding to the strain of farmers dependent on them. Russia and Belarus provide a large share of the world’s fertilizer, and their shipments have been significantly interrupted. (Of course, because causes and effects are complex, this situation might actually spawn the positive benefit of focusing attention on increased efficiency of chemical fertilizers and investment in alternative fertilizers that are less destructive to health and the environment, as IFPRI notes.)

The second reason stability is important is because conflict doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t bring an end to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 or other diseases. Nor does conflict make climate-related disasters take a hiatus. The most significant risk to food security in a region occurs when multiple shocks coincide.

This is, in part, what makes the food security situation for export-dependent countries so dire right now. In places like Yemen, which depend on grain exports from Russia and Ukraine, the war comes on the heels of a locust swarm that devastated crops and continues to pose a threat to farmland. Moreover, some of the people dependent on exports from Ukraine are in areas facing their own conflict-related crises, such as Afghanistan.

When combined with existing poverty, rising prices, climate events and other conflicts, the shock to the global food system that the war in Ukraine represents could be severe. In the short- to medium-term, the FAO estimates that the conflict could lead to nearly 8 million more people around the world becoming hungry. This is in addition to the refugees and internally displaced people of Ukraine whose lives and livelihoods have been immediately impacted. That increase in hunger would come on the heels of significant growth in undernourishment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To sum it up, conflict destabilizes nearly every aspect of our global food system, which is partly why it is often named as the most significant driver of hunger around the world. For most of history, humans could assuage feelings of responsibility or even fear if a conflict emerged halfway around the globe. But our world today is far too connected to believe that borders, oceans or miles can insulate us. The globalized, interconnected food system that each of us is a part of demonstrates politically and economically what we have always known theologically, namely that the safety and well-being of all God’s creation matters, no matter how distant the people involved might seem to be.

The stability of the food system depends on many factors: farmers, workers, bakers, herders and processors who produce food; truck drivers, rail workers, loaders and grocers who make food available; health care workers who tend to nutritional well-being; employers who provide wages to workers so that they can be consumers; utility workers who keep infrastructure running to ensure the safety of food; construction and road workers who ensure there can be adequate transportation of food; and even policymakers who negotiate trade agreements and aid to ensure that the food system is inclusive.

To paraphrase the philosopher Jacques Derrida, when we eat, we never eat alone. We are eating the fruits of God’s creation made possible because of neighbors around the world. And as we eat, we are mindful that the stability of this system on which all of us depend to some extent, depends itself on the truths we are called to pursue: peace and justice.

So, to return to the first post in this series:

The ripple effects of the war in Ukraine could echo throughout the food system for a long time. But we find courage and hope in God who “calls us to hope, even when hope is shrouded by the pall of war” and who, even now, is at work in, among and through peacemakers, supporting neighbors in need and “striving for justice and peace in all the earth.”

What can be done? Providing support to the work that has already begun by giving a gift to Lutheran Disaster Response is one way to help meet the growing need of Ukrainians, especially those who have been displaced by the conflict.

A next step after that is to consider ongoing support of Lutheran Disaster Response and ELCA World Hunger. Some of the long-term consequences described in these posts may be reduced by working with local communities around the world to reduce vulnerability, increase capacity and build resilience against future shocks. This won’t be the last violent conflict; but by working together toward a just world where all are fed – and safe – we can take steps to help prevent the many destructive ripple effects that we may see this year. Supporting food producers; investing in stable, sufficient livelihoods for all people; increasing the capacity of communities to respond to crises; and building a just, sustainable and stable food system will go a long way to ending both hunger and conflict. As António Guterres wrote last year,

We need to tackle hunger and conflict together to solve either.

War and Hunger in Gaza – and Elsewhere

As an organization that defines hunger broadly, ELCA World Hunger is concerned with the many root causes of hunger. One of these root causes is, of course, war. And the current situation is Gaza is especially poignant for anyone who wants to explain how war causes hunger. It is demonstrating so many of the effects in such a short period of time.

In perusing the news coverage, I found this page today on the BBC Web site. It provides a summary of several of the problems in just one page. Getting food is the most direct hunger issue. People are running out of food in their homes, warehouses that store food are too dangerous to access, distribution paths are disrupted, bakeries lack cooking gas to make food, outside food can’t cross the borders in sufficient quantities, and the price of the food that is available continues to rise.

Beyond the food itself, energy supplies have been interrupted, which means that people don’t have the electricity or gas to cook, even if they have the food. More problematic, water is running short as the pumps at wells run out of fuel to lift the water from the ground. In addition, lack of power has halted the pumps at wastewater treatment plants, causing sewage to flood neighborhoods, farmland, and sea.

Those are just some of the immediate problems caused by war. The longer-term issues are just as grave. On this page, a woman mentions that local farmers have not been able to harvest their crops for two weeks. Depending how long the fighting continues and how much damage is done to the crops, war can destroy food supplies for a whole season as well as the livelihoods of those who are employed in the local food system. Damage to the fields and soil can destroy that chain for longer than a season. In addition, damage to other infrastructure – roads, businesses, government buildings – can interrupt livelihoods and basic services in many sectors, and for a place like Gaza that doesn’t have a lot of wealth and assets to start with, recovery can be a long road even in the best of circumstances. And none of this even addresses the loss of life – often working age men who provide income for their families.

Gaza is the location grabbing headlines at the moment, but the factors are similar in every war. So until war ends everywhere, as people engaged in the fight against hunger, the trick is to not grow weary of long-lasting wars, or to forget them as soon as they’re over, but to keep on fighting for those affected and for a different future. Ironic, the wording, no?

-Nancy Michaelis

Bomblets and hunger

That war is a cause of hunger is not news. War displaces people from their homes, livelihoods, and usual food sources. It recruits and kills working-age men who would otherwise support their families. It disrupts agricultural cycles and destroys fields. It maims economies, infrastructure, and people.

But one aspect of how war causes hunger did recently surprise me. It shouldn’t have. Even a moment of thought makes it blatantly obvious. But I hadn’t before considered how the ammunition of war causes hunger, sometimes for decades after the fighting has ended.

Here’s an example I read about from the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines. The US dropped 90 million cluster bomblets on Laos during the Vietnam War. Today, they estimate that about 10 million of those bomblets remain unexploded, and that the bomblets cover one-third to one-half of Laos. They further explain that 80% of the country’s labor force is involved in subsistence agriculture.

The choices are both obvious and bad. Either Laotians don’t use a lot of land that they could to grow food because it’s too dangerous, or they farm it anyway, understanding that people will be severely injured or killed when then accidentally hoe an old bomblet.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ web site lists, in bullet form (munitions irony, there), the many problems land mines and cluster bombs cause. In addition to later land use, some of the key hunger-related problems include slowing the return of displaced people, slowing rebuilding efforts, environmental damage each time a mine or bomblet explodes, the resource strain to poor communities and governments trying to assist landmine survivors, and the ongoing danger to both people and livestock. Of course, some of these issues are common to any war. The difference is the length of time unexploded munitions extend the problems.

The good news is that the issue is getting some serious attention. Beginning today in Dublin, some 100 countries are meeting to discuss banning cluster bombs. You can read an overview in yesterday’s Boston Globe. And if you’ve been looking for an advocacy project, this may be an opportunity to explore. The United States is not attending the talks.