Escalation in Global Food Prices Linked to Export Restrictions, Climate Change, and Geopolitical Tensions

by Ethan Kim
Global Food Prices

The conundrum of affording staple foods is becoming increasingly dire for families globally due to the scarcity of essential commodities such as rice, cooking oils, and onions. This scarcity can be attributed to multiple factors: geopolitical conflicts like the war in Ukraine, climatic changes, and the disruptive impact of El Nino on agricultural production. Nations are consequently restricting food exports to safeguard their domestic reserves.

Caroline Kyalo, a 28-year-old salon worker residing in Nairobi, Kenya, faced the dilemma of preparing meals for her two children without onions, the cost of which has tripled owing to Tanzania’s export restrictions. In an attempt to adapt, Kyalo initially switched to spring onions, only to find that they too had become prohibitively expensive, along with other essentials like cooking oil and corn flour.

“Consequently, I have resorted to cooking just once a day,” she revealed.

Despite Kenya’s abundant arable land and sizable labor force, factors such as high production and transportation costs, coupled with the most severe drought in decades, have contributed to a decline in local agricultural yield. A report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that by 2014, Kenya was sourcing half of its onion supplies from Tanzania.

At Wakulima, Nairobi’s main food market, vendor Timothy Kinyua reported that the cost of Tanzanian onions has surged to a seven-year high. While some merchants have pivoted to sourcing produce from Ethiopia or diversifying their offerings, Kinyua remains committed to selling onions.

“The ingredient is indispensable in our cooking,” he commented.

Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, noted that Tanzania’s onion export limitations are symptomatic of a broader issue: a global “contagion” of export restrictions initiated by countries anxious about depleting resources and escalating demand. Currently, 41 such food export restrictions are in place, implemented by 19 countries, ranging from total bans to taxation measures.

This issue is further exacerbated by disruptions in key global supply chains. For instance, India’s prohibition on certain rice exports led to a nearly 20% drop in global supplies, with Myanmar subsequently ceasing some of its rice exports. India also restricted onion exports due to unpredictable weather patterns worsened by climate change, resulting in soaring prices in adjacent Bangladesh.

Similar situations have unfolded in other parts of the world. A drought in Spain negatively impacted olive oil production, prompting European consumers to turn to Turkey and leading to skyrocketing prices there. Additionally, Morocco ceased exporting various key vegetables due to its own drought and subsequent earthquake.

Glauber posited that heightened volatility in food prices is likely the new status quo, especially given the dwindling global reserves and the uncertain impacts of climate change. He stated that the future of global food prices will be shaped by the outcomes of El Nino, climatic impacts on agriculture, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.

These geopolitical and environmental stressors have far-reaching implications, especially for nations dependent on food imports. In the Philippines, where 14% of food is imported, food prices have seen significant hikes. Shop owners in Manila are witnessing dwindling profits as prices soar, forcing consumers to purchase lesser quantities.

For individuals like Cynthia Esguerra, 66, the choice boils down to food or essential medication. “I have forsaken medication to afford food and meet our loan obligations,” she said.

Elyssa Kaur Ludher, a food security researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, emphasized that the ramifications of climate change are not limited to staple grains; they extend to livestock and other forms of agriculture, which could experience stress due to unstable weather conditions.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, two substantial global food suppliers, further threatens food security. Russia’s termination of a maritime agreement ensuring the safe transit of Ukrainian grain exports has left only costly and contentious European routes for Ukraine’s food shipments, undermining global food stability.

In conclusion, the current turbulence in global food prices is a complex interplay of climate-induced disruptions, geopolitical conflicts, and national export policies. With supply chains compromised and reserves dwindling, heightened volatility in food prices seems inevitable, impacting vulnerable populations the most.

This article is based on reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam, Nairobi, Kenya, and Manila, Philippines.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Global Food Prices

What are the main factors contributing to rising global food prices?

The key factors include climate change, which affects weather patterns and crop yields; geopolitical conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine, which disrupt supply chains; and national export restrictions aimed at preserving domestic food supplies.

How are export restrictions affecting food prices?

Export restrictions limit the availability of certain foods in the international market, thereby driving up prices. These restrictions are imposed by countries to safeguard their own food supplies but have the unintended consequence of exacerbating scarcity and increasing costs globally.

Who are the most affected by these rising food prices?

Vulnerable populations, particularly in countries that rely heavily on food imports, are most affected. In many cases, individuals are having to choose between essential items like food and medication due to the elevated costs.

Are there any global institutions or policies in place to address this issue?

While there are organizations like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute that monitor and report on food security issues, there is no unified global policy to effectively address the rising food prices.

Is climate change making the situation worse?

Yes, climate change exacerbates weather-related challenges such as droughts, erratic rainfall, and extreme temperatures, all of which can adversely affect crop yields. This adds another layer of complexity to the issue of food scarcity and rising prices.

How are individual countries adapting to this crisis?

Countries are using various methods to adapt, such as sourcing alternative food supplies from different countries, diversifying their agricultural products, and implementing national policies to stabilize prices. However, these measures often have a limited impact on the overall problem.

What are the long-term implications of rising food prices?

Long-term implications could include increased food insecurity, malnutrition, and social unrest. The high volatility in food prices is likely to become the new normal, with climate change and geopolitical tensions continuing to influence supply and demand.

Is there any role for the private sector in mitigating this crisis?

The private sector can play a role through investment in sustainable agriculture, development of climate-resilient crops, and innovations in food distribution and storage technologies. However, these are more long-term solutions and may not provide immediate relief.

More about Global Food Prices

  • United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Report on Global Food Security
  • International Food Policy Research Institute Publications
  • World Bank Data on Food Import Dependency
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports
  • Latest Developments in the Ukraine Conflict
  • El Nino and its Global Impact
  • Global Climate Risk Index
  • World Health Organization on Malnutrition and Food Insecurity
  • Climate Adaptation in Agriculture: Strategies and Methods
  • Economic Impact of Geopolitical Tensions on Global Trade

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Emily K. September 28, 2023 - 4:07 pm

Its just heartbreaking, especially for the people in poorer countries. They’re always hit the hardest 🙁

Harold F. September 29, 2023 - 12:08 am

I’m worried about how all this affects the next generation. Food scarcity and climate change? Not the world I want for my kids.

Anita B. September 29, 2023 - 12:43 am

So much data in this article. A lot to digest, but thanks for the in-depth look. Sometimes it feels like we’re all just sitting ducks.

Sara L. September 29, 2023 - 1:46 am

why’s everyone surprised? Climate change was bound to have multiple ripple effects. Wish the govts did something concrete tho.

Robert A. September 29, 2023 - 2:41 am

When we gonna realize, it’s a global problem? No country is an island, we need to solve this together. But who’s taking the lead?

John D. September 29, 2023 - 2:51 am

Wow, this article really opened my eyes. Didn’t know how interconnected all these problems are!

Mike T. September 29, 2023 - 6:27 am

Great read. Solid journalism that makes you think. More ppl need to be aware of this crisis we’re heading into.

Tina S. September 29, 2023 - 6:46 am

Good article but what about the solutions? We know the problems, let’s talk fixes.


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