A Year of War

A year into the Ukraine war, global food insecurity is at a record high

Samantha Fields Feb 23, 2023
Heard on:
Roger Anis/Getty Images
A Year of War

A year into the Ukraine war, global food insecurity is at a record high

Samantha Fields Feb 23, 2023
Heard on:
Roger Anis/Getty Images

Bread is Islam Sabry’s life.

He’s turned a room in his apartment into a microbakery — with a big mixer, a proofing cabinet and a good oven. He spends most days baking, then biking all over Cairo delivering bread to his customers. 

Sabry’s bread isn’t the traditional bread most Egyptians eat with every meal, the bread that’s so central to life in the country that the government subsidizes it. He bakes artisanal bread — sourdough, multigrain, rye, babka. And he sells it for a lot more than many Egyptians can afford to pay.

Islam Sabry slices bread at a market in Cairo. (Wael Hussein Al Sayed/BBC)

But at the community market he goes to on Saturdays, in an affluent part of the city, he often sells out. Especially these days. Hard as he tries, he just can’t bake enough bread to keep up with demand, mostly because he can’t get enough of his main ingredient anymore. 

“It’s very, very hard to get flour,” he said. “Because of the economy problems and wars and stuff around the world.” 

Egypt is one of the largest wheat importers in the world, and it gets about 80% of its supply from Ukraine and Russia. So when Russia invaded Ukraine last February and disrupted the flow of wheat out of both countries, it became much harderand more expensive — to get flour.

A year later, it still is.

Sabry spends a lot of time and energy calling vendors, trying to find certain kinds of flour. Still, he often comes up empty.

“I get so many orders, but I can’t make it because I don’t have,” he said. “And I can’t find it anywhere. So I lost so many customers to that.”

And the flour he can get is a lot more expensive. More than double what he used to pay.

Egypt is one of dozens of countries around the world where people are feeling the effects of the war in Ukraine every day. Ukraine and Russia combined produce more than a quarter of the globe’s wheat exports. So when the war began, prices skyrocketed. Prices of other commoditiesincluding corn and sunflower oil — did too, along with fuel and fertilizer. 

In places like the Middle East, in Lebanon, Egypt, Somalia, in regions where they rely heavily on imports, it was devastating,” said Tjada McKenna, CEO of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. 

It was particularly devastating because the war came at a time when many countries — and people — just didn’t have the capacity to deal with another economic shock.

“Even before the war in Ukraine began,” McKenna said, “the food situation was precarious for millions of people around the world after two years of the pandemic affecting supply chains.” 

If the war had been the only thing disrupting those supply chains, “maybe it would have been a little bit better,” said Arif Husain, chief economist at the United Nations World Food Program. “But on top of COVID, it made things so, so, so difficult — not for one or two countries, but literally for dozens of countries.”

In many countries now, food inflation is upward of 15%. In some, including Egypt, it’s closer to 50%. And in a few, prices have doubled. 

“Right now, we are in a very dangerous situation,” Husain said. 

A worker wearing brown clothing rides a bicycle, the road and urban surroundings by him blurred by his motion. One hand is on the bike's steering wheel, the other holds a long rack that holds two shelves of bread, which is balanced on his head.
A worker delivers bread in Cairo in May. Food prices in Egypt have surged nearly 50%. (Roger Anis/Getty Images)

The number of people going hungry around the world has been rising steadily since the pandemic began and has only accelerated because of the war. Today, more people than ever are facing acute food insecurity — an estimated 349 million. 

“I like to say that when the World Food Program sets records, it does not bode well for the world,” Husain said. “And for the last three years, we have been setting records year after year.” 

At this point, a year into the war, global prices of food commodities, fuel and fertilizer have come down some. 

“But global food prices coming down does not necessarily translate in local food prices coming down,” said Julian Lampietti, manager of global engagement for agriculture and food at the World Bank. “The real crux of the matter is that food price inflation has gone up a lot and is still very high. And that’s what affects consumers and their pocketbooks and their ability to buy food.”

In Cairo, Islam Sabry, the baker, has had to raise his prices three times in recent months. His bread is now 25% more expensive than it was maybe six months ago. Still, he’s making less than he used to on each sale because his costs have risen much more than that. 

“I can’t put it all on the customer,” he said. “To double the price on everything, I can’t do that. It’s not fair.” 

Sabry estimates he’s lost about 20% of his income in recent months. Meanwhile, all of his expenses have just kept rising — not just for the business. 

“I’m still very much struggling getting by here because I still have to pay rent and life expenses,” he said. “It’s very, very hard because I also still have to face that everything got increased around me. Like more than double. Like, very much more than double.”

And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. Even so, he said, “I can’t imagine myself doing something else besides baking.”

In Egyptian Arabic, he pointed out that the word for “bread” is the same as the word for “life”: “aish.” 

“So it’s just, bread is life,” he said. “You know?”

Additional reporting by Wael Hussein Al Sayed.

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