In 2019, before any of us said the word “COVID”, conflict was the trigger for six of the 10 worst food crises. They always are.
Today, 65% of the world’s hungry people live in conflict zones and experts agree that food security is a casualty of war. While we may lament how every trip to checkout seems to cost us more, the impact of military conflict on the world’s most vulnerable is devastating. Conflicts in countries like Ukraine, Lebanon, Yemen, Myanmar and Ethiopia are currently causing food instability at home and beyond.
Remains of shells from a multiple rocket launcher are seen in a grain silo complex, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, July 5, 2022. PHOTO: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko/File photo.
1. Food as a weapon
The most obvious cause of the global food crisis is also the most worrying: History is full of political entities deliberately causing hunger as a means of controlling, or worse, reducing a population. It is sometimes called a “food war”.
A brief history lesson Siege of Leningrad. During World War II, German and Finnish troops surrounded the city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) for 872 days in a military operation that Hitler hoped would cripple the USSR’s war efforts and destroy the morale of the advancing Red Army. Horribly, around 800,000 people died, 90% of them from starvation.
“[R]Currently, millions of people are food insecure because their country depends on food shipments that cannot pass… With about 70% of the wheat consumed in African countries normally coming from Ukraine and Russia, the impact of this situation on food insecurity is clear. When food can’t move through supply chains, people starve.”
It’s hard to believe, but it could have been so much worse. There was a gap in the German line around the city, Lake Ladoga. When the lake froze, those outside the city dragged food to Leningrad on the ice, under enemy fire. Later, many would be evacuated in the same way. Locals called it the “street of life”. The cost to those who helped was real; if caught, they themselves would be killed or imprisoned, but they did it anyway. Countless lives have been saved. God worked through human acts of compassion.
On May 24, 2018, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the use of food insecurity and starvation as a tactic of war, but sadly this remains evident today.
2. Political sanctions, blocked trade routes and unplanted crops
In the 21st century, millions of people currently suffer from food insecurity because their country depends on shipments of food that cannot pass. During the European summer of 2022, approximately 23 tonnes of wheat, corn and sunflower oil blocked in Ukraine because of political sanctions and dangerous passage. With around 70% of the wheat consumed in African countries normally coming from Ukraine and Russia, the impact on food insecurity is clear. When food can’t move through supply chains, people starve.
Already, around 95% of Afars in Ethiopia are food insecure. This is just the beginning. The harvest of 2023 is not in the ground. With fights and few opportunities to sell their product, most Ukrainian farmers did not plant crops. When the world looks for wheat next year, it will not be found, so the current crisis is likely to get worse.
The governments of many African countries are working hard to mitigate the impact of the war in Ukraine. The Ethiopian government is helping programs increase their own wheat production, which has had a positive impact on employment and wages for local farmers. But the need is so great that experts believe there will still be a shortfall. Worse still, fertilizers are also produced in Ukraine and Russia and are also blocked by sanctions and blockages of trade routes.
Baptist World HelpChristian partners have worked to increase agricultural production in countries where safe passage might otherwise be deterred or where environmental disasters have called for more sustainable and proactive agricultural practices. In Kenya, for example, our Christian partners are working with farmers to implement farming practices that require less water and produce higher yields.
And here in Australia, grain growers are working with agencies to donate some of their own 2022 winter harvest to countries in need. Once again, kindness shines when God moves people to compassionate responses, both as individuals and collectively.
3. Hoarding, rising prices and food accessibility.
The natural impact of grain and fertilizer shortages is rising prices and hoarding. We’ve seen it in small ways before with toilet paper and lettuce. When supply cannot meet demand, people often hoard and prices rise.
For example, food inflation in Lebanon has increased by 300%. When families cannot afford food, the ripple effect can be detrimental. Children’s health and development become especially vulnerable in such circumstances, as their parents must focus entirely on survival, leaving education and other long-term well-being initiatives as unaffordable luxuries.
Hasfa and her husband* fled the violence in Syria with their six young children. Even before the current inflation crisis, they struggled to live on the income of a single breadwinner. Thanks to the work of Christian partners in Lebanon, the family has food, blankets, mattresses and heating equipment. They were also able to enroll their youngest children in an education center facilitated by the local churches.
“Some people in our community were not happy that we knew about the churches,” Hafsa said. “So I told them that I wish that we were all like Christians and that we all had the mercy and love and honesty that they have in our hearts.”
4. Displacement, destruction and violence
As seen in Lebanon and other parts of the world where Baptist World Aid works with local Christian partners, war leaves people stranded, disconnected from the culture they know, and vulnerable. Currently, more than 68 million people are displaced around the world right now. And while some are able to flee with assets they can use to pay for food, transit and goods, others have nothing, or end up with nothing after several relocations.
Most displaced people seek refuge in countries already struggling with problems of poverty and hunger. These countries have limited capacity to meet the significant food and other needs of the refugees. For example, there are currently one million people living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh who have fled violence in Myanmar, many of whom are injured and in poor health.
According to estimates provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the average time spent as a displaced person is 26 years. Opportunities to support oneself are often blocked by legal status, job constraints, trauma and health issues. Humanitarian aid that seeks to provide solutions to both the short-term problem of hunger and the longer-term problems of general food insecurity is more likely to succeed.
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5. Budgets are hijacked.
When conflicts erupt, they usually trigger a humanitarian crisis. We take note. The media reports bomb drops and pictures of terrified people fleeing, pets and children in tow. The emergency is enforced and governments, NGOs and charities around the world are reaching out to help. While this is a good thing, it can mean that programs designed to fight hunger suffer as budgets are diverted to deal with conflict. The uncomfortable truth is that when it comes to conflict, the most vulnerable bear the greatest cost. For those of us who are Christians, how do we understand our role as agents of God’s goodness, restoring dignity and seeking to do as much good as possible, even in times of conflict?
Ruth offers some ideas. The biblical book of Ruth is imbued with acts of kindness, strength of character, selflessness and God’s faithfulness to people through people. The book opens with a family of displaced people fleeing famine “when the judges ruled”. Those were days of almost constant strife and oppression, and like today, that led to hunger.
Naomi has become a destitute widow, far from home with few prospects. Yet comfort came to Naomi through Ruth. Ruth’s Brave Choice staying true to her mother-in-law and becoming a refugee, knowing that she would face racism and poverty, comes from compassion. Later in the story, Boaz finds a creative way to make sure Ruth has enough food, preserve one’s dignity in a culturally appropriate way. And, the last chapter foreshadows the greatest goodness of God yet to come, through the generations, in his son who redeems us. Our God is a generous God.
The story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz is a story of people reaching out with compassion and generosity. Caring for people caught up in conflict, and the impact it has on hunger, is a challenge for us. The problem is complex and it is tempting to either look away or raise our collective arms in despair. But Christians are called to do better.
That’s why our local Christian partners implement food security programs that meet people’s immediate needs, while equipping them to meet their needs in the future. Jesus told us in Matthew 25:31-46 that we must give food to the hungry; water to the thirsty; refuge abroad; indigent clothing; and care for the sick. He does not tell us to give from our excess, but from our compassion, because we love him.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you have done for one of my littlest brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” – Matthew 25:40
*Names have been changed for protection.
Heather Keith is a feature writer for Baptist World Aid Australia.