Dan Rodricks: Baltimore-based CRS warns about threat of East Africa famine from drought and Ukraine war | COMMENTARY

Shaun Ferris, left, specializes in agriculture and food for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services in East Africa. Margaret Kahiga runs a food security project for CRS in Kenya.

Russia’s unconscionable war on Ukraine could ignite a food catastrophe in parts of the world already dealing with shortages from drought and the effects of the pandemic. Staff from Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are seeing firsthand the war’s impact on the food supply in East Africa.

CRS and other aid groups called on the Biden administration to provide more humanitarian funding to deal with the secondary effects of the war. “While the war in Ukraine demands our attention, we must not forget the multiple looming hunger crises in places like Yemen, Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa,” CRS said in a statement last week.


By email from their stations in Kenya, two of Catholic Relief’s experts in agriculture and food security, Shaun Ferris and Margaret Kahiga, answered my questions about the brewing crisis.

What are you seeing in East Africa right now regarding food?


Ferris: We’re seeing the effects of four simultaneous crises: COVID, which over two years of lockdowns and restrictions degraded the business sector; drought, the worst we’ve seen in 40 years; regional political instability; and the Ukraine war. All of this is accelerating inflation.

Kahiga: We are seeing a shortage of wheat, cooking oil, rice and other food commodities, which are largely imported. Statistics from the government of Kenya show that, in April, national inflation hit a seven-month high of 6.47%, up from 5.56% in March. This is putting even more pressure on families trying to feed themselves.

Ferris: The food security situation in East Africa and Kenya is building toward an inflection point. The price of eggs has risen by 30% in just three months. The price of corn, which is the main food, has increased by 25% in three months. Bread has increased by 20%. All of these rapidly rising costs are affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people.

I assume no imports of grain are coming from Ukraine or Russia. Is that true?

Kahiga: As far as we know, no imports are currently coming from Ukraine or Russia. This is stretching local markets and driving up prices for staple foods.

Ferris: It’s particularly difficult for Ukraine as most of their goods were shipped out through the southern seaports like Mariupol and Odesa. … Ukraine is going to have to truck out their commodities, if they have any harvest to sell. Many traders do not want to establish financial deals with Russia, and major commodity traders are concerned about punitive fines if they fall afoul of sanctions laid down by the European Union and the United States. As one of the European traders said last week: “whilst trade with Ukraine is unreachable, trade with Russia is untouchable.”

Kahiga: The situation in Ukraine is driving up wheat prices and also the price of fuel. In the last month there have also been fuel shortages in Kenya leading to high prices. This has affected even the cost of goods manufactured in Kenya as the manufacturing industry relies on fuel to produce goods.

What have weather conditions been like over the last few months?


Ferris: In the worst areas, it looks a bit like what you would think the Dust Bowl probably looked like. There is no greenery. No grass. No pasture for the animals. When you walk on the land, it crunches under your feet, because the grass is desiccated. Trees have no leaves. It feels barren. It feels scary. Kenya has lost 1.5 million cattle in the past season. Ethiopia has lost more than 2 million livestock. Such mass casualty wipes out a community’s assets, especially communities that survive by sheep or cattle herding. This leads to huge tensions between communities over water and the loss of pasture.

Kahiga: Northern Kenya in particular is experiencing dry weather conditions and extreme high temperatures. Many of the people who live in that region are pastoralists reporting massive deaths to their livestock from starvation, heat and dehydration. Many more communities are migrating in search of pasture and water. In some of the communities I visited recently, the majority of the men had migrated seeking pasture for cattle. Women are then parenting alone and have to find food to feed their families.

The fertilizer supply is also a big problem for farmers, right?

Ferris: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are major exporters of fertilizer. This means governments and farmers are buying less fertilizer and some farmers are trying, where possible, to switch to manure. But that’s very limited. Yields next season will be lower. That scenario will be played out across the region: Lower yields, less agrochemicals to protect the crops and prices continuing to rise.

It sounds bleak. Where is this going?

Ferris: It is vital that fragile countries already facing rapidly rising prices get two types of support. First, they need financial support to reduce the impact of rising food prices. Second, they need a continued and increased investment in agricultural development projects, like the ones implemented by organizations like CRS. These projects enable farmers to ramp up production over the next two to four years to meet the drastic increase in need. Congress should immediately provide a substantial increase in humanitarian funding for East Africa and other places where hunger is ballooning. Without action to address these secondary impacts of the war, global and economic stability could suffer as a result. In that sense, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.