This post is Part III of a five-part series discussing the many ways that violent conflict impacts hunger. The next key aspect of food security is food access, or put another way, is food available to consumers in safe, reliable ways? 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.

The next key aspect of food security is food access, or put another way, is food available to consumers in safe, reliable ways? Here, we take a look at how conflict impacts this, with specific attention to the crisis in Ukraine.

Even if food is produced, conflict interrupts the transportation and infrastructure needed to get it in people’s hands. As the World Food Programme (WFP) notes, an estimated 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize ready to ship from Ukraine and Russia have been “frozen” out of the food supply chain, so they won’t get to the people who need them.

Even if food does get out to stores, food prices are rising rapidly, so consumers may not be able to afford them. The COVID-19 pandemic has already driven up the prices of staple foods, and these prices are likely to continue climbing. Because of the balance between demand and supply, these costs will rise even in countries that aren’t dependent on exports. The FAO estimates that food and feed prices could soar by up to 22%, depending on the movement of prices.

But couldn’t other countries simply ramp up production to fill the gap? Perhaps, but it’s not quite that simple. There are many benefits of a global food system. We have access to a wider variety of foods, often for lower prices, which is incredibly helpful for countries that are export-dependent. But this also means that a shock anywhere can lead to cascading shocks everywhere. In the case of the war in Ukraine, this means that the countries that could step up to fill the gap in food exports are also dependent on imported fuel. Because of the role Russia and Ukraine play in producing fuel, costs to run production facilities and transportation in other countries are also rising.

On top of all of this, within the countries directly affected by violence, conflict causes stores and markets to close and the loss of jobs. Also, because roads and bridges are overrun or destroyed, trucking and rail shipments can come to a halt in conflict areas, so, food can’t get to or from processing plants or stores for consumers within the country, and it can’t get to or out of ports for export, as we have already seen with some ports on the Black Sea closed. The loss of jobs, of course, reduces consumers’ ability to pay for the scarce supplies of food that may be available.

Ukrainians and Russians are both feeling this pinch, in part because of the invasion of Ukraine and in part because of the global response to the invasion. Obviously, within Ukraine, the disruption to daily lives, transportation, jobs and stores means that those who have stayed or been internally displaced within the country may have difficulty accessing basic goods, even if they do have the money to afford them. With many routes into city centers closed, too, this compounds the challenge of getting necessities to people who need them.

For Ukrainians forced to flee to other countries, humanitarian agencies and churches have stepped in alongside governments to meet some of the need, but in terms of access, it may be irregular for quite some time.

Russians, too, may experience obstacles to food access in the near future and long-term. Some have already. Sanctions are a middle road for international governments between, on the one hand, doing nothing and, on the other hand, engaging militarily in what would likely become a global war. Sanctions allow for pressure to be applied on Russia with minimal risk of escalating armed conflict. However, sanctions are also an indiscriminate tool, meaning their effects aren’t limited to just the people engaged in the war.

Research into the effects of US sanctions have found that “it is those living in poverty who are harshly affected” by sanctions. The effects are more pronounced when the sanctions are implemented by multiple countries, as we are seeing now with Russia. Unfortunately, while the seizure of yachts from oligarchs and the freezing of wealthy individuals’ bank accounts receive the most media attention, the impact of sanctions is most likely to be felt more sharply and for a longer time by average Russians, especially those who are already at or near poverty, as they lose jobs with foreign companies or domestic companies impacted by supply shortages.

Because of the lack of reliable information, it is difficult to say what the effect of sanctions has been on unemployment in Russia, but history suggests that average Russians will be significantly impacted. Likewise, as gas and fuel costs rise in the rest of the world, the people living paycheck-to-paycheck are most impacted, including here in the United States, as a higher percentage of their income goes to heat their homes, purchase goods or fill their tanks to drive to work.

This doesn’t mean that sanctions aren’t necessary or justified; but even necessary and justified actions have a cost.

Violent conflict causes immediate obstacles to food access for many people that go far beyond food production. It isn’t enough to have enough food being produced if people cannot afford it or if there aren’t outlets to get it from producers to consumers. These obstacles to access, including the collateral damage to food access within a sanctioned country such as Russia, ultimately impact the way people utilize the food that is available, as we will see in the next post on food utilization.