Blog Post

Six lessons learned from a year of multiple crises: Beyond the Russian invasion of Ukraine

As 2022 came to a close, we attended the GIZ conference “A Year of Multiple Crises: Reflecting the impacts, policy responses and outlook for food security and agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.” During the event, experts examined the global policy implications of the Russia-Ukraine war regarding food, fuel, and fertilizer, as well as the conflict’s global market disruptions and its particular impacts on African economies.

In Africa and elsewhere, the worst affected are the poorest and most vulnerable regions and populations. Six key lessons emerged from the discussions that apply broadly to addressing the impacts of these overlapping crises going forward, building resilience in agrifood systems, and improving global food security in the face of future shocks.

A year of multiple crises

Food inflation reached critical levels in 2022, with double-digit rates recorded in most of the world. Though food prices have since fallen from their peaks, the crisis persists and has resulted in expanding numbers of people affected by hunger and malnutrition, especially the poorest, who spend over 60% of their income on food. By the end of 2022, the number of undernourished people had risen to more than 800 million globally.

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine is often cited as the triggering event for these soaring figures, but the truth is that the situation was already dire before the war began.

A legacy of high agricultural input costs (i.e., of fertilizers, energy, fuel), years of insufficient yield growth, and weather shocks led to low stocks of several key commodities and raised international prices, leaving markets susceptible to shocks. The war triggered new disruptions on the supply side, pushing prices further up (see Figure 1). In a way, it was just the most recent in a series of crises—conflict, climate change, COVID-19, etc.— serving to highlight the structural drivers underlying the current situation.

Figure 1

Lesson #1: Avoid export bans and restrictions on food and agricultural goods

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 16 countries implemented trade barriers and export restrictions with the aim of protecting domestic consumers and producers from international market disruptions. Combined, these measures impacted 17% of the world’s trade in calories. Despite their intended goals, such restrictions on international trade have been found to increase prices for consumers and limit market access for producers in developing countries, hindering access to a more diverse food supply. Recent export restrictions only perpetuated a vicious cycle in which high food prices induced export restrictions which, in turn, led to further food price increases.

Trade, when managed well, can help improve and strengthen opportunities and choices for both producers and consumers, providing alternative sources to secure food supplies and thus contributing to stabilizing prices. Wheat and maize from Argentina and Brazil, for example, have largely compensated for the decline in Africa’s imports of those items from Canada and the United States (due to 2021 droughts), and Ukraine (due to the war) (Figures 2 and 3).

The importance of maintaining open food trade is echoed in the recent WTO’s Ministerial Declaration on the emergency response to food insecurity.

Figure 2

 Figure 3

Lesson #2: Enhancing flexibility in the sources for food, feed, and agricultural inputs

While trade is essential, it only works well with varied sources of food, feed, and agricultural inputs, both in terms of the diversty of products and of producing and exporting countries. Yet the war has highlighted a clear lack of such diversity due to the world’s dependence on imports from Ukraine and Russia, as grain and fertilizer prices rose to their highest levels since 2008.

Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a smart strategy, but neither is shifting all the eggs from one basket to another. In the aftermath of the invasion, Asian countries turned to broken rice instead of maize for animal feed—leading to a domino effect of rising prices in the rice market, which hit Africa in particular and worsened after the June-October floods in Pakistan.

Providing more options can help to avert such problems when the next shock hits. We need more flexibility in which, where, and how food, feed, and agricultural inputs are produced and consumed. Improved diversity, in turn, will increase the resilience of local, national, regional, and global food systems. But expanding flexibility will require significantly increasing public and private investment in research and development, to sustainably, rationally expand production, as well as promoting trade strategies that support the diversification of import sources (both in terms of countries and companies), and reducing food loss and waste along supply chains.

Lesson #3: Promoting increases in agricultural productivity

While agricultural productivity growth has been slowing in some countries and regions, it has remained robust globally (Figures 4a, 4b).

Policies aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity growth, such as investments in R&D, strengthening economic incentives for farmers, infrastructure, and rural education and extension, have been found to effectively narrow the yield gap. However, it is also crucial to consider food security, sustainability, and agrifood system resilience as key elements in productivity growth.

Figure 4a

 Figure 4b

Lesson #4: Provide for financial risk and uncertainty

In Africa, a global economic slowdown and tightening conditions also threaten to further constrict governments’ ability to address the current crisis. Indeed, many developing country governments are already facing limited fiscal space and high levels of public debt, compounded by rising borrowing costs, reduced official development assistance flows, and possible sudden capital outflows.

Public debt levels had been on the rise prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, and a relative devaluation of many developing countries’ currencies against the U.S. dollar in 2022 further diminished their purchasing power. Combined with high reliance on imports and rising prices, this has squeezed many African countries’ ability to secure food (see Figure 5).

Figure 5


External and emergency financing is critical in the immediate term to address these problems—but much more will be needed to keep this crisis from worsening, and to head off future crises.

Countries should explore innovative mechanisms to reduce their debt burdens. Debt-for-nature-swaps are one option, providing debt relief in return for investments in sustainable development, thus allowing for further economic as well as social and environmental sustainability. The proceeds of a proposed debt swap for Sri Lanka, for example, could target regenerative agriculture with the aims of ensuring food security, enhancing biodiversity, protecting soil health and preserving water.

Lesson #5: Don’t forget the broader, longer-term agenda

It is natural in a crisis to respond with emergency measures, but donors and governments should not lose sight of the long term. This means not only building more resilient and sustainable markets, but also ensuring poor countries have the financial and policy means to respond to existing and emerging crises.

Single, one-off policies will not provide a way out of the current predicament. There is no simple or standard solution to such a complex situation. Safeguarding food security and making the food system work will take a whole-of-system approach. Interventions should target the food system, the economic environment, governance, and other key elements in the broader, longer-term dimensions of this crisis.

These challenges are complex, but their urgency should not be underestimated; systemic actions should be taken sooner rather than later; otherwise problems will continue to compound and the costs of inaction will inevitably increase. Recognizing the multi-dimensionality of this crisis and responding to it is imperative to building resilient food systems and future global food security.

Lesson #6: Protect nature and climate, protect the food supply!

Another important way to mitigate future shocks and promote food security is to step up the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, both of which featured prominently in discussions for global action in the last year (with COP27 and COP15 in November and December 2022, respectively), highlighting the critical climate-biodiversity-food nexus.

The consequences of climate change for food production were obvious in the past year—as in years prior. Even before the war, droughts in Canada and the U.S. had decimated food crops and driven up prices. In 2022, one of the worst droughts of recent decades in the Horn of Africa exacerbated the region’s already-severe food insecurity.

These impacts are particularly concerning considering that climate change is expected to continue challenging the stability of the global food supply and food security.


The core of the current food crisis in Africa lies in governments’ inability to procure food and agricultural inputs at high prices due to constrained fiscal space and limited global supplies. Some of the solutions—applicable to developing countries everywhere—include advancing resilient and sustainable trade, boosting agricultural productivity, accounting for macroeconomic and financial uncertainty, aligning with the broader sustainable development agenda, and accelerating climate and nature-positive action. 

As people around the world continue to suffer from the effects of the last year(s) of crisis and as policymakers look for ways to address these problems, this list of lessons from recent crises should offer some strategic approaches and practical recommendations. With the effects falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable, targeted interventions will be needed. All avenues, long- and short-term, should be explored going forward to reduce the exposure of the most vulnerable to the current and future crises.

David Laborde is Director, FAO Agrifood Economics Division and a former IFPRI Senior Research Fellow; Lysiane Lefebvre is Policy Advisor and Project Manager at the Shamba Centre for Food & Climate; Francine Picard is a  Shamba Centre Co-Founder and Director of Partnerships; Valeria Piñeiro is Acting Head of IFPRI's Latin American Region and Senior Research Coordinator with the Markets, Trade, And Institutions (MTI) Unit. Opinions are the authors'.