War And Mental Health: Food As A Weapon Of War

SAFMH News Room


Towards the end of February 2022, the world saw the outbreak of yet another violent conflict when Russia invaded the Ukraine, leading to a full-scale war. Fuelled by strategies and false propaganda [echoing those used by Nazi Germany], Russia has killed unarmed civilians, including children, women and families. It has bombed maternity and children’s hospitals, churches, and homes, and has unashamedly violated laws and human rights. Russia has even denied humanitarian bridges meant to provide civilians access to water, food and medicine, or as an escape route to safety. Now, as we write this, the Ukrainian war has already passed the six-month mark, with no signs whatsoever of the intensity of the conflict lessening – not on the battlefield, nor in terms of the war rhetoric coming out of Kyiv and Moscow.

However, for many people who have been spared the direct horrors of war, the Ukrainian conflict might seem distant enough that, while being something they’re aware of or even fear from a safe distance, they may not yet see it  as something that impacts on them directly. So in this, the fourth part of our “war and mental health series”, we look at one issue that we all – by virtue of simply being human – have in common, and that is the need for food. We also look at how purposeful starvation and the disruption of food supply chains caused by the Ukrainian war is affecting all our lives, and inevitably also our mental health.

Food as a weapon of war

An extremely concerning problem arising from the Ukrainian war is the weaponisation of food as a war tactic. At present, a dreadful contradiction is manifesting in the Ukraine, where thousands of people, stuck in cities besieged by Russian forces, are facing starvation, while the country’s grain stores are bursting with food. This has left the Ukrainian government begging for international assistance to help export their grains to global markets, which will help address the world’s food crisis, which is in itself an urgent global priority. However, this won’t stop warmongers using starvation as one of their favoured weapons. In the world today, Russia is not the only perpetrators of this; most people who face famine in the world today are afflicted by war, and many are being starved deliberately through what amounts to a form of ‘societal torture’.  Globally, at the end of 2021, approximately 200 million people were already struggling with acute food insecurity. These numbers escalated severely after the Russian invasion and the blocking of the Ukraine, which is highly problematic as the country is a major exporter of oil seeds and grains. This in turn disrupted global food markets, leading to escalating food prices across the world.

From global to local

And so it is here where the Ukrainian war – albeit almost 15 000km away from us here in South Africa – starts becoming an everyday, real-life problem, as it does for so many other countries who might not be feeling the direct, full force of the war, but who are feeling its knock-on effects. While Africa as a whole is still trying to recover from the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war is posing a major food-related threat to the global economy, affecting many African countries directly. Within a few weeks of the war starting, global crude oil, sunflower and wheat prices soared to extraordinary levels, which is very problematic as Africa, who immediately started feeling the effects of massively increased food prices, is heavily dependent on food imported from both countries.

Here at home in South Africa, the United Nations have stated that the Ukrainian war has created various new, multi-dimensional risks to our economy by worsening supply chain blockages and inflation pressures because of, amongst other things, higher food prices. This could in turn lead to adverse effects on things like employment, poverty and food security, all of which in turn impacts on our mental health.

The link between food, mental health and poverty

While the relationship between what we eat and our mental health is complex, we know that eating well has a positive effect on how we feel. But what if we are deprived of food to the extent that we experience food insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to sufficient amounts of food to enable an active, healthy lifestyle? While food insecurity is a nutritional issue that affects a person’s diet and weight, it also impacts on psychological wellbeing, for example through an individual feeling deprived of choices pertaining to food or experiencing anxiety related to the supply of food. Food insecurity may thus lead to negative consequences for mental health. A study assessing the mental health outcomes of famine and food insufficiency in West Africa showed that exposure to food insecurity is associated with “increased psychological distress including anxiety, sleeplessness, intellectual disability, general mental, and emotional instability”.

In South Africa, as in other countries across the world, food is one of the key needs for a person’s daily survival. In our country, food is recognised as a fundamental human right according to our constitution. However, approximately 6.5million people in South Africa are food insecure and hungry, which continues to be a significant challenge for our country. This food insecurity is driven by several factors, including conflict (such as the Ukrainian war), poverty and population growth. Households that are food insecure do not have enough money to buy food and cannot produce their own food. These households also frequently face, among other challenges, unemployment, which make them especially vulnerable to what is termed “economic shocks”. Considering this against the stark background that, in 2015, 55.5% of South African were already living below the poverty line, a concerning picture starts to emerge when we think about the dramatically rising prices of food due to the Ukrainian war, and the fact that millions of people are increasingly being affected by food insecurity and the prospect of poverty.

Poverty and mental health have a precarious relationship in that persons who experience poverty [especially early in life or for extended periods] are at risk of various health and developmental problems throughout their lives. Childhood poverty is linked to impaired cognitive, behavioural and attention-related outcomes, along with poorer achievement in school, increased rates of delinquency, anxiety and depressive disorders, and higher levels of virtually all types of mental health conditions in adulthood. At the same time, adult poverty is linked to psychological distress, depressive and anxiety disorders, and suicide.

Connecting the precarious dots

So whilst we may not all be affected by the violence plaguing countries in conflict, we can all relate to the reality of the threat of food insecurity and it’s potentially devastating and long-lasting impacts. What we are therefore facing because of the Ukrainian war is a multi-faceted, complex and interconnected vicious circle, where the war has led to skyrocketing food prices, increased levels of food insecurity, hunger and poverty – all in turn potentially leading to poorer mental health for large sections of nations across the world.

By Leon de Beer, Deputy Director – SA Federation for Mental Health

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