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Famine threatens wide swaths of world, now worsened by Ukraine war

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — The scenes witnessed by journalists and humanitarian workers in recent months have been striking: In Sudan, swollen-bellied babies are looking for anything to eat. In Yemen, where warring parties have blocked humanitarian aid, hollow-eyed children and their mothers languish on the brink of death from starvation. In Ukraine, the elderly are collecting rancid rain runoff for drinking water.

Malnourishment and hunger were big problems even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and cut off Europe's breadbasket from its markets, sparking a flurry of dire warnings about the world's food supplies. Dozens of countries across the globe are already suffering from devastating food shortages, so much so that the number of people facing starvation more than doubled in just the last two years, to 345 million, according to United Nations figures.

The causes are myriad: drought and flooding, and the interruption of supply chains triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in China. An estimated 20 wars or conflicts — the latest in Ukraine — have also seriously disrupted access to food and water.

"The current food security challenge that we're facing [is] due to these three Cs: climate, COVID, and conflict," said Ramin Toloui, assistant secretary of State for economic affairs, one of several Biden administration officials tasked to food-security issues.

The bleak situation drew the attention of powerful diplomats Friday when U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the foreign ministers of six other of the world's largest economies met in Germany to map out plans for easing global food shortages. Few observers expect real solutions to emerge but hope the summit will highlight the crisis and boost funding for antihunger efforts.

The Biden administration has committed about $8.5 billion to emergency food assistance and related programs, focusing initially on the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Lebanon and Haiti, Blinken said.


"We hear all these numbers; we've all cited numbers of this growing food insecurity," Blinken said in Berlin. "But what we know is this: We know that those numbers are people, real people, real lives, real livelihoods, mothers, fathers, children. ... As human beings, all of us have to be seized with this."

The U.N.'s World Food Program calculates that eight of the 10 largest food crises worldwide are being primarily driven by conflict — in Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Such wars force people from their homes into long desperate treks for safety. They devastate farms and wreak havoc on food distribution systems.

In Latin America, food scarcity is also driving tens of thousands of people to abandon parched or hurricane-leveled farms and migrate to the United States.

These were the disasters already in motion when Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, the U.N. says the Russian blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports could lead 40 million more people to go hungry.


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