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Even before the crisis in Ukraine exacerbated shortages, more people around the world were facing hunger than ever before, leading many Americans to wonder: what can and should the United States do about it?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2021 report categorized nearly 2.3 billion people as food insecure, due to issues such as global conflict, climate change, and COVID-19. Now, a multitude of factors have driven the number of food insecure people up by 440 million since the start of the year. The “breadbasket of Europe” is in upheaval. Russia and Ukraine together produce 29 percent of the global supply of wheat and other critical commodities. Disruptions in the market are trickling down to low- and middle-income countries who are unable to afford higher prices for food staples and fuel.
Americans are indirectly affected by conflict, sanctions, and trade disruptions through higher global prices of critical food and energy resources. With 93 percent of Americans believing that combatting global hunger is an important foreign policy goal, the United States can and should play a role in addressing these crises.
Over the past 10 years, Americans have been bombarded with news of famine and war around the world. What’s more, hunger has become weaponized. In Syria, the Assad regime pursued a tactic of “kneel or starve” that blocked the movement of much needed food and medicine to severely food insecure populations. The link between hunger and the likelihood of future conflict was firmly entrenched during the 2007-08 food price riots. The extreme rise of global food prices led to rationing and high food inflation, which allowed economic and political grievances to fester and ultimately contribute to the violent Arab Spring uprisings. Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the country has witnessed empty food markets amid economic collapse and high unemployment rates for half of the population.
Today in Ukraine, conflict has created ripple effects across the world’s economy: global energy markets have seen higher consumer energy prices and farmers are experiencing higher input costs and volatile markets., Supply chains have been further disrupted by the suspension of commercial shipping from Odessa, a major port, and the laying of sea mines in the Black Sea a major shipping lane for agricultural products. Restricting Ukraine’s ability to export its much-needed wheat and increasing the probability of the upcoming winter wheat harvest rotting in the fields. Wheat prices have increased significantly since the start of the year, exacerbated by poor weather and a lack of fuel and fertilizer inputs, creating food insecurity and instability especially for low- and middle-income countries who rely on wheat purchases for subsidized bread and other programs for the poor.
Hunger is both a humanitarian issue and a national security issue. Governments recognize that what happens to their neighbor affects them and their national security. The recent Russia-Ukraine conflict underscores the interconnectedness and fragility of the global food system—and the need for US engagement. Some exporting countries, faced with smaller than expected harvests and imports, have turned inward, and implemented export bans further constricting supply in global food markets. The United States has a long history of global leadership. Both in support of free and open trade and in international hunger relief and prevention efforts. Major foreign assistance, development, humanitarian, and disaster relief programs exist; however, further assistance is necessary to counter the recent effects ofCOVID-19, the climate crisis, and conflict.
This sentiment is reaffirmed by findings of the recent Chicago Council Survey: 45 percent of Americans believe humanitarian tools—such as sharing vaccines, combating hunger, and providing disaster relief—are not used enough in foreign policy (only 15 percent say they are used too much). The 2021 Survey noted that 50 percent of Americans believe that combating global hunger should be a very important foreign policy goal, compared to 43 percent who responded accordingly in 2004, a nearly two-decade high, signifying that more Americans believe combating hunger to be a priority than ever before. The 2021 Survey also found that combating global hunger as foreign policy goal was increasingly supported by Americans across the political spectrum. The percentage of self-described Republicans who classify combating global hunger as a very important foreign policy goal has increased by 15 percentage points (from 22% in 2017 to 37%) in 2021. The majority of Democrats characterizing combating hunger as a very important goal also increased slightly (from 57% in 2017 to 62% in 2021). Independents also placed a higher priority on the issue, with half saying combating hunger is a very important goal (48%, up from 35% in 2017).
As bitter partisanship becomes more ingrained in Congress, issues of global hunger as it relates to foreign policy present an avenue for bipartisanship in moving American leadership and interests forward on the global stage. Not only does the majority of the American public think that the foreign policy goal of combatting global hunger is important, a majority of Americans (54%) furthermore believe the US should play a leading role on the issue.
The United States must continue to lead globally in addressing conflict and global hunger. Constituents must be vocal in reminding their elected representatives that the time for action is now, both for Ukraine and the rest of the global community.
Peggy Yih joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2020 as the managing director of the Center on Global Food and Agriculture, where she works to advocate for global food and nutrition security and to advance a more sustainable and resilient food system. She previously served as a senior program officer for the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine where she worked in various roles for nearly 15 years.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for public opinion and foreign policy where she leads the polling team on all US and international survey research projects. Prior to that, she was a division chief and analyst at the Office of Opinion Analysis at the State Department for 15 years.
Samanta Dunford joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant for the Center on Global Food and Agriculture. She is based in DC and meets with government policymakers to advocate for food and nutrition security. Previously, she worked in the Office of Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
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