ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
A perfect storm of political unrest, climate change and disruptions brought on by the war in Ukraine is pushing food security in Asia to crisis point. In Indonesia (pictured), shortages of cooking oil prompted a blanket ban on palm oil exports in late April.    © Getty Images
The Big Story

Asia's food crisis: Ukraine war triggers chain reaction of shortages

Deadly combination of conflict, misgovernance and climate change threatens widespread hunger

DOMINIC FAULDER, Nikkei Asia associate editor | Southeast Asia

BANGKOK -- "At such a time, the farmers of India are coming forward to feed the world," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared boldly on a visit to Berlin earlier this month.

Sudhanshu Pandey, secretary of India's Department of Food and Public Distribution, endorsed Modi's confidence. "India has a comfortable food situation with an overall surplus availability of grains and stocks expected to be higher than the minimum requirement for the next one year," he said.

Indian trade delegations were duly dispatched to nine countries "for exploring possibilities of boosting wheat exports from India," the Indian Express reported. But on Friday the 13th, Modi's hubris imploded. India, the world's second largest wheat-growing nation after China, announced that it was banning most wheat exports.

Backtracking, Pandey told reporters the following day that this was to protect India's own food security and counter inflation. India's expected wheat crop has also fallen short this year because of heavy rains early on and a record-breaking heat wave.

India's export ban is the latest in a domino chain of supply cuts around the world that arguably started with Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February. Both countries are major grain and fertilizer exporters, cut off from foreign markets by war in the case of Ukraine and sanctions in the case of Russia. With the loss of these suppliers, the rest of the world's food industry has begun to seize up, as major exporters such as India (wheat) and Indonesia (palm oil) fear for domestic supplies.

Harvesting wheat near the Russian village of Tbilisskaya last July. Russia's agriculture ministry expects this year's grain harvest to come in at around 130 million tons.   © AP

"Oil prices are skyrocketing and there is [a] shortage of food grains and fertilizers," T. S. Tirumurti, India's permanent representative to the United Nations, told a U.N. Security Council briefing on the war in Ukraine on May 5. "This has had [a] disproportionate impact on the Global South and developing countries."

Ukraine, the so-called breadbasket of the world, fed an estimated 400 million people in 2021, with the bulk of its exports passing through the Black Sea ports of Mariupol and Odesa. Ukraine can now only export by torturous land routes due to Russian attacks on the ports.

"Ninety million tons of agricultural produce, which Ukraine planned to export to countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, have been blocked," Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told reporters in Odesa recently.

Russia, meanwhile, is projected to harvest 130 million tons of grain this year, including 87 million tons of wheat -- putting it possibly on course to beat its 2017 record of 135.5 million tons. However many countries have stopped doing business with Russia, or cannot due to financial sanctions.

A Ukrainian army officer inspects a grain warehouse shelled by Russian forces on May 6 near Kherson Oblast. Russia has been accused of targeting food storage sites in frontline areas and degrading Ukraine's wheat production, causing a global shortage.    © Getty Images

Egypt and North Africa will be badly affected by the loss of Ukrainian imports, but the effects reach far beyond the immediate neighborhood. In Asia, Indonesia is Ukraine's second largest export market for wheat, where it is used in noodles, bread and flour. Russia, meanwhile, is Indonesia's fourth largest source of chemical fertilizer.

On March 23, Lyudmila Vorobieva, Russia's ambassador to Indonesia, told local reporters that international sanctions were the cause of any shortages. "From our side, we are ready to export wheat to Indonesia," she said. "It is not Russia who causes trouble to the world economy, it is the sanctions against Russia. ... We will offer more wheat to Indonesia if it is the choice of the Indonesian government."

Ukraine also supplies around half of the world's sunflower oil, and Russia around 20%. The price of sunflower oil has at least doubled in most of Asia this year and risen by 1,000% in parts of Europe. Cooking oils have already been rationed in European supermarkets, and are in very short supply elsewhere, particularly South Asia. There have been knock-on effects in Asia as shortages beget further shortages, leading to record food prices.

Indonesia, which supplied 55% of the world's palm oil to 134 countries in 2020, on April 28 slapped an indefinite ban on palm oil exports after the domestic price almost doubled to 25,000 rupiah ($1.75) per liter, triggering student protests. President Joko Widodo's flagging popularity rallied after the ban, but analysts are deeply concerned.

Sunflower oil is in short supply in Europe's supermarkets as Ukraine, the world's largest producer, has lost more than half its export capacity in the wake of of Russia's invasion in February. This supermarket in Barcelona, Spain, had empty cooking oil shelves by March.    © Reuters

The ban "has outsize implications beyond palm oil and the country's shores," Moody's Analytics said in a note on May 11. "This will translate into higher food inflation and jeopardize food security, especially for lower- and middle-income countries that prefer the cheaper palm cooking oil." India, for example, is the world's largest importer of palm oil and will struggle badly without critical Indonesian supplies.

Dipa Sinha, an assistant professor of economics at Delhi's Ambedkar University who is actively associated with India's Right to Food Campaign, finds it "ironic" that India - a food surplus nation with record wheat harvests for the past two years -- should still have real food insecurity concerns. "The problem is in the distribution," Sinha told Nikkei. "Many people are not able to afford enough food."

"We keep saying we have food surplus because we have rice and wheat but that is not enough," Sinha said. "We need at the very least pulses and oil." At present, India imports half its edible oil needs. Retail inflation surged to a 17-month high of 6.95% in March.

The war in Ukraine is exacerbating serious food inflation. The United Nations estimates global food prices have risen over 34% in the past year, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is now in its third year. Humanitarian agencies are in despair.

Workers load palm oil fresh fruit bunches destined for factories in Pekanbaru, Riau Province, on April 27 -- the day before Indonesia banned palm oil exports indefinitely.   © Reuters

"We buy 50% of all the grain we buy from Ukraine, which allows us to feed about 125 million people," David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, a U.N. agency based in Rome, told network CBS on Face the Nation in mid-April. "We've now got 45 million people in 38 countries that are knocking on famine's door."

Almost 60% of the world's 7.9 billion people live in the Asia-Pacific region, and that correlates closely to the proportion who are malnourished globally. According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), last year 418 million Asians went hungry. UNICEF reported in 2018 that over two-thirds of the world's children considered underweight for their height were in Asia. Even in Malaysia, the third largest economy in ASEAN, 20% of children under 5 are considered malnourished.

According to Beasley, the WFP has recently suffered a $71 million jump in its monthly costs and has had to halve food distribution to 8 million starving people in Yemen, Chad, Niger and Mali. This comes with East Africa facing its worst drought in four decades.

"WFP is forced to play this very cruel game of reducing the food available to the very worst off," Paul Risley, a former WFP spokesperson for Asia, told Nikkei Asia. "We pit the very poorest places against one another for a very limited amount of food."

Humanitarian concerns aside, Beasley's most compelling sales pitch for providing food relief to insecure people in their homes is that it costs a minute fraction of the amount that must be spent coping with the displacement and migration that follows starvation. Basically, pay a little now, save a great deal later.

"You're going to have famine and you will have destabilization of nations and then you will have mass migration," Beasley told CBS. "And this will cost a thousand times more than if we can get the food and reach the people before they either die or create political unrest or migrate."

"What breaks your heart is there's $430 trillion worth of wealth around the world today," he said. "There's no reason a single child should be dying from hunger, much less going to bed hungry."

Regionwide hunger

Yet the WFP, whose activities focus on emergency assistance and development aid in countries struggling with hunger, is still needed in half of the relatively prosperous and fertile ASEAN countries -- Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. Often overlooked, tiny East Timor has a 1.3 million population that is 36% "chronically food insecure," according to the WFP, with half of all its children under the age of 6 malnourished.

The Philippines remains a net food importer with a population of 110 million, of which 64% are chronically food insecure due to the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and conflict. During the 2007-2008 global food crisis, it was particularly hard hit because the economy was so lopsided toward sugar production instead of rice.

Women receive humanitarian aid from the World Food Program in December 2021, in Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city. The WFP estimates that nearly 75% of Afghanistan's population is facing acute or emergency levels of food insecurity.   © Getty Images

Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there were serious food shortages in Afghanistan and Myanmar that still have the potential to be highly disruptive, leading to displaced people and refugee exoduses. According to the WFP, 22.8 million Afghans face acute food insecurity, of which 8.7 million are suffering emergency levels of food insecurity.

Food insecurity is also a big problem in North Korea. According to U.N. figures, North Korea will have an estimated shortfall of 860,000 tons of food this year. The country actually experienced famine in the mid-1990s, caused by the loss of Soviet support, economic mismanagement and climatic factors.

In his 2002 book, "The Great North Korean Famine," former USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios said that parts of the country received no food deliveries for years. According to the government, up to 235,000 people starved there. Natsios estimated the true number could have been as high as 3.5 million.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen in front of what state media described as a "new type" of intercontinental ballistic missile. The propaganda photograph was issued in March by the Korean Central News Agency. The country is expected by the United Nations to be short of almost a million tons of food in 2022.   © KCNA/Reuters

Even as memories of this disaster remain, and with extreme poverty among the population, the Kim Jong Un regime continues to fund a nuclear weapons program and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, at the clear expense of national well-being.

Breaking point in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, too, epic economic mismanagement -- including failure to seek timely assistance from the International Monetary Fund -- has compounded the mortal economic blow delivered to the country's vital tourist industry by COVID-19. Even in the country's north-central rice bowl, farming families are having to make do with two meals a day. "We are farmers, rice growers, and this is our current situation," Herath Banda, 38, a paddy farmer and father of two, told Nikkei. "We only eat breakfast and dinner now."

This largely politically inflicted disaster has eliminated Sri Lanka's food reserves. It was precipitated by the hawkish President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who in April 2021 had his ultranationalist government ban chemical fertilizers in favor of organic alternatives -- a move influenced by close allies who included a Buddhist monk and a medical trade union leader.

Farmers burn off rice stubble in Sri Lanka where harvests have plunged following an ill-judged ban on chemical fertilizers. The bankrupt island is no longer self-sufficient in its main staple grain.     © AP

Yala, as the next cultivation season is known, starts in May, and there is no expectation that anything will improve. Sri Lanka's farmers all face the same problems -- particularly the lack of chemical fertilizers that so diminished the March harvest. According to Buddhi Marambe, a professor of crop science at the University of Peradeniya in central Sri Lanka, there has likely been a 45% shortfall in produce during the Maha (the main cultivation season that follows the start of the monsoon in October).

Scientific studies were ignored by the Sri Lankan government, including a mid-2021 survey by Verite Research, a Colombo-based think tank, which showed that close to 75% of farmers were heavy users of chemical fertilizer while only 10% cultivated without them. Rajapaksa reversed the policy later in the year, but the damage was already done, and the bankrupt country -- with only $5 million left in foreign reserves by mid-May -- can no longer afford chemical imports. Hard-won self-sufficiency in rice, the staple grain, has been lost.

"Since 2008, Sri Lanka has been producing much more rice than we can consume -- some years 20% more -- so there was a sense of food security and stability," Marambe told Nikkei. "We are now forced to import rice due to a human-induced decision."

Counting out coins to pay for groceries in Colombo last month. Sri Lanka completely exhausted its foreign reserves in May, and is facing a food and energy crisis caused by serious misgovernance that has led to rioting and brought down the government.    © Reuters

Rice has doubled in price this year while everything from tomatoes to turmeric continues to spike. Rajapaksa has paid a heavy political price for his miscalculations as he begged favors from China and India. His older brother, Mahinda, the former president, was finally forced to step down as prime minister, and a minister's house was burned down in May amid riots that put troops on the streets. Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, was appointed prime minister for the sixth time on May 12 in a ceremony closed to the media. Many believe he has been handed a poisoned chalice.

Avoidable misery

Food aid to some of Asia's hardest-hit regions has also been held hostage to geopolitics. In October, India announced a donation of 50,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan that needed to be transported across Pakistan, its arch enemy. In the current diplomatic standoff, Pakistan allows only Afghan exports into India but not two-way trade. Then-Prime Minister Imran Khan said an exception could be made in this instance, but Pakistan's obstructive red tape was not cleared until late February, toward winter's end, when 41 trucks from Afghanistan were allowed across to begin collecting the donation at the Indian border.

A truck carrying wheat from India finally passes through the Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan on February 22. Pakistani red tape and the diplomatic freeze between the two arch enemies held up India's food relief to Afghanistan for four months through the winter.    © Getty Images

Myanmar, the second largest country in ASEAN, was once the so-called rice basket of Asia. It is now subject to feckless military rule that has created an entrenched civil disobedience movement and stoked ethnic conflict on over a dozen fronts. Rice, Myanmar's main staple, has risen only 14% in the past year, according to WFP, even though production has dropped in the central Sagaing and Magway regions because of fighting and dryer weather. Production in the Ayeyarwady Delta has been much less affected.

A girl pushes a wheelbarrow with a bag of rice distributed in May 2021 by the World Food Program, part of efforts to relieve residents of poor communities on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and former capital.   © AFP/Jiji

Myanmar in January exported 260,000 tons of rice to Sri Lanka and China, among other places, but the figure had fallen to 130,000 tons by March, rice traders told Frontier, an independent Myanmar news organization. The downward trajectory is likely to continue. The military-controlled Central Bank of Myanmar introduced foreign exchange controls on April 3, making domestic rice more expensive as the cost of imports rises.

But displacement and poverty may have played a part in keeping rice prices in check by disguising real demand. Myanmar's military has been burning down villages, destroying a record 3,415 homes in April, according to Data for Myanmar, an independent monitoring organization.

Bin in Myanmar's Sagaing region on Feb. 3, 2022. Part of Mingin Township, Bin is among the many villages torched by Myanmar's military in the aftermath of an inconclusive coup in February last year.    © Reuters

Scorched earth tactics have created agricultural chaos and assure future food insecurity for Myanmar. A farmer who recently returned to his burned village in Sagaing despaired of recovering his livelihood growing sesame and pigeon peas. "In May and June, we have to prepare for planting," he told Nikkei. "But this year, our seeds, fertilizers and other inputs have all been burnt."

Internally displaced people from Myanmar in early February carry donated food boxes back to their tents on the Thai side of the Moei River near Mae Sot. Thailand already has around 150,000 long-term Burmese refugees in nine camps along its western border.   © AP

"It is the triple threat of war, a government that is not responsive and actual climate change," said Risley of the critical situation in central Myanmar. "The WFP will be very hard-pressed to find as much funding as they did even last year in order to help the people of Myanmar."

The lucky ones

China is one of 23 countries the International Food Policy Research Institute, a U.S. think tank, said has stepped up protectionism in the wake of the war in Ukraine. It ranks second to the U.S. as an importer of food products and is the sixth largest food exporter behind the U.S., Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany and France. Its overarching objective is to achieve self-sufficiency.

"To ensure that China's seed resources are self-supporting and under better control, self-reliance must be achieved in seed technology," Chinese President Xi Jinping told officials during a visit to a seed laboratory in April.

Last summer, China curtailed fertilizer exports to protect food security, and this will be felt internationally more keenly following the cutoffs from Ukraine and Russia. China and India were the world's largest wheat producers in 2020, followed by Russia with Ukraine in eighth place, but both were much less export-orientated.

Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged in March that the country's agriculture faces "new challenges" because of the war in Ukraine and market volatility. In February, China's official grain production target was set at a conservative 650 million tons -- the same as in 2012 when 682.85 millions tons were actually harvested.

Harsh COVID-19 lockdowns, particularly of Shanghai's 25 million residents, have provided a dystopian glimpse of where food shortages could lead. Near riots broke out during six weeks of severe lockdown.

Volunteers deliver free food to residents of a gated community in Shanghai, China, during the phased lockdown in April.    © Getty Images

Social media carried footage of the unrest. In one, a drone floated past giant apartment blocks filled with howling people denied access to groceries. "Please comply with COVID restrictions," a disembodied female voice exhorted from the blinking red light in the night sky. "Control your soul's desire for freedom -- do not open the window or sing."

In a rare move, local authorities in Heilongjiang Province did ease pandemic control measures in April to facilitate spring planting.

Students returned to school on May 12 in Harbin, China's Heilongjiang Province. Schools had been shut to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but restrictions were eased in the region to facilitate the spring planting of crops.    © Getty Images

Compared to much of Asia, Thailand is a success story. It ranks as the world's 13th largest food exporter and third largest rice exporter, and sends roughly a quarter of its total food production abroad. It has doubled rice exports to China this year and broken into new markets such as Iraq, which imported 130,000 tons of rice in the first two months of 2022 compared to just 146 tons in 2021.

Thai food exports are expected to have risen by over 20% in value by the end of this year following a 4.1% drop in 2020. The surge has gone a long way to closing the national income gap created by the collapse of tourism. The kingdom has billed itself in the past as the "kitchen of the world" and exports canned, cooked and frozen food, including halal fare. A quarter of Thai food exports went to China last year, including delicacy mushrooms from the north and durian. In third place, Japan buys a lot of chicken and seafood from Thailand.

Thai rice prices are up about 10% this year with common grades fetching under $470 per ton, and there is no sign of shortage. Unlike in Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's years (2011-2014), when the government concocted a scheme to corner the market by buying up the entire rice crop, only 25% -- about 5 million tons -- is purchased for storage. That is well below the peak of 18.7 million in Yingluck's time, much of which spoiled at huge cost.

Farmers harvest rice in southern Thailand's Narathiwat Province. The kingdom is expected to produce 20% more rice this year than it did in 2020, helped by unusually wet weather that will permit three rice harvests.    © AFP/Jiji

"Since we can produce rice all year round, we don't have to invest massively to stock up in a large amount," Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, told Nikkei. "We have plenty of rice to harvest every two to three months."

Thailand is expected to produce between 30 million and 32 million tons of paddy this year -- 20% more than in 2021. "With rising demand in several countries, we might revise this year's export target up to 8 million tons from 7 million tons forecast earlier," Chookiat said.

"We might experience shortfalls in some foods or raw materials that push prices up in general, but we've never suffered any food shortage," Visit Limlurcha, chairman of the Food Processing Industries Club of the Federation of Thai Industries, told Nikkei.

With few countries as well placed as Thailand, the world food crisis is at least being well flagged. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF managing director, recently described Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "a crisis on top of a crisis" -- one that comes with inflation reaching its highest levels in decades.

According to the WFP, 80% of food crises are driven by conflict -- which means they can be resolved through effective diplomacy.

"Let me end on a positive note," Georgieva said in Washington. "We know hunger is the world's greatest solvable problem. A looming crisis is the time to act decisively -- and solve it."

Additional reporting by CK Tan in Shanghai, Erwida Maulia in Jakarta, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi, Yuichi Nitta in Yangon, and Marwaan Macan-Markar and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more