The current global crisis threatens food security in countries like Lebanon, 90% of whose grain-requirement comes from Ukraine.

Besides sky-rocketing oil and commodity prices, the war in Ukraine has unleashed the spectre of a global food crisis. The upward-spiraling prices of wheat and other essentials threaten vast parts of the developing world. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, global food prices were up by 21% year-on-year last month, with wheat futures spiking more than 50% due to supply uncertainties amidst disruption in the Baltic Sea region that could hinder exports from Ukraine and Russia. Both account for 30% of the world’s traded wheat. Planting operations in Ukraine, of wheat, barley and corn, have also been severely disrupted by the ongoing war. Wheat prices thus have risen to record levels, last seen during the global food crisis of 2007-08. For such reasons, the head of the World Food Program warned that the war is unleashing “hell on earth” by putting more people at risk of starvation globally.

It bears mention that the 2007-08 crisis triggered food riots in Egypt and threatened social unrest in Indonesia and the Philippines. Africa’s Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal also experienced it, among 40-odd countries impacted by high food inflation. High prices in 2009-10 are in fact regarded as a contributory cause of the Arab Spring.

The current global crisis threatens food security in countries like Lebanon, 90% of whose grain-requirement comes from Ukraine. The latter is the bread basket for Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Libya. The impact extends to Afghanistan in which three-fifths of its 38 million people face hunger and starvation. The current crisis is bound to trigger recurring fears that the world’s food supplies will not keep pace with growing population, threatening starvation, hunger, premature death and other natural checks to bring the two in balance. These grim forebodings, contained in an essay written way back in 1798 by Reverend Thomas Malthus, keep surfacing whenever there is a difficult situation on the global food front.

The global food crisis represents an opportunity for India to supply wheat at competitive prices for the developing world and meet the gap left by Russia and Ukraine. Wheat from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh is being delivered by rail wagons or trucks at warehouses near Kandla port at Rs 2,400-2,450 per quintal, which is above the MSP of Rs 2,015 for the new wheat crop that will enter the mandis or market places from mid-March onwards. Mandi prices in Madhya Pradesh, where harvesting activities are at peak, are also ruling higher than MSP, as reported by this newspaper.

India’s wheat exports have picked up after global prices surged, touching 6.6 million tonnes so far this fiscal, according to union food secretary Sudhanshu Pandey. This could touch as much as 10 million tonnes next year. The country is in a situation of potential plenty — wheat production is estimated to hit record levels of 111.2 million tonnes in 2021-22 (July-June) as against 109.59 million tonnes in the previous year — with overflowing granaries of the Food Corporation of India . These surpluses enabled the government to distribute grains for free to 810 million people during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now with high export demand, this is the best time to reduce procurement and keep the level of public stocks necessary for food security. While exports are a lucrative for farmers, this is the right time to address food security of poorer nations. Like it tried to do by exporting Covid-19 vaccines, India’s grain exports, too, can be a public good to alleviate hunger and starvation that stalks many developing countries due to the global food crisis.

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