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As the war in Ukraine continues, so does the threat to a global food crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every war ripples out beyond the immediate conflict zone, and here's one way Russia's war on Ukraine could have consequences across many continents. Russia and Ukraine are two of the world's biggest grain producers. The war has broken supply chains. And so while many Ukrainians are going hungry now, this may soon lead to food shortages across Africa, the Middle East and other regions. David Beasley is executive director of the World Food Programme, and he joins us now from Kyiv. Welcome.

DAVID BEASLEY: Thank you, Ari - good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's start with where you are now in Ukraine and then zoom out. Last year Ukraine was the biggest provider of food by volume to your organization. Fifty percent of the World Food Programme's wheat came from Ukraine. And this is the season when farmers would ordinarily be planting. As you travel across the country, what are you seeing?

BEASLEY: Well, you're seeing devastation, families torn apart from their communities and having to flee from harm's way. And everybody's very concerned about, No. 1, how are they going to feed the people inside Ukraine? No. 2, how do you keep the economy afloat here? And No. 3, how do we make certain that we can get these very precious and critical food supplies to the millions of - actually, billions of people around the world that depend upon this Ukrainian food?

SHAPIRO: How difficult is it for Ukrainians to find food right now?

BEASLEY: Inside Ukraine, it is difficult, particularly in the war-stricken areas. We're doing everything we possibly can to reach these people, the hardest-to-reach people.

SHAPIRO: Now let's talk about what this means for hungry people in other parts of the world. Half of Africa's wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia. So what happens if this growing season is disrupted?

BEASLEY: You first need to understand is before the Ukrainian war, we were already seeing a spike in fuel costs, food costs, shipping costs. And just when you think it couldn't get any worse, boom, Afghanistan, and then boom, Ukraine. So now we are already cutting dozens of millions of people down to half rations, like, for example, Yemen. Imagine telling your child, I can only feed you half of what you need this month. And...

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the increased cost of the food, but is the food even going to be there if farmers are not planting their fields because their fields have become a war zone?

BEASLEY: Ari, this is a catastrophe because guess where the Ukrainian farmers are right now. They're on the frontlines fighting for the freedom of their country. It's going to have an impact on the entire world. No doubt in my mind, the devastation that it will have on our operations could truly lead to not just starvation but destabilization of nations and mass migration.

SHAPIRO: How does mass hunger and starvation lead to global destabilization and mass migration?

BEASLEY: When people don't have food, when they can't feed their little girl or their little boy, they're going to do whatever they got to do, including leaving home. And people don't want to leave home. I can tell you from experience that people will not leave their home if they have food and some degree of peace. But if they don't have both of those, they would do what any mom and dad in any place on the planet Earth would do. They're going to find that place where they can feed their family.

SHAPIRO: You're painting a picture of a very dark future. Let's talk about what could be done to avoid that. Obviously, it would help if the war in Ukraine ended. Obviously, it would help if climate change were addressed. If those two things are not addressed, are there steps the international community could take to avoid this worst-case scenario?

BEASLEY: Well, I have been saying all along, even before the Ukrainian war, if you can end these wars, we can end world hunger. We're facing a daunting task ahead of us, and it's going to require everybody working together - private sector, government sector, United Nations, NGOs, everyone willing to help out in ways they have not thought of before.

SHAPIRO: That's the World Food Programme's executive director David Beasley. Thank you for joining us.

BEASLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kathryn Fox