Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is contributing to a sharp rise in the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations World Food Programme warned in a statement Tuesday, heaping more pressure on a region that is already suffering from the fallout of Covid-19 and the effects of climate change.

Between December 2021 and March 2022, the WFP said that, according to recent surveys conducted by the organization, the number of people suffering due to severe food insecurity “shot up” by more than 500,000. Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“Millions of people could be pushed into poverty and hunger if the conflict in Ukraine continues. The region is already dealing with Covid-19, rising costs and climate extremes,” said Lola Castro, WFP’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We could return to food insecurity peaks seen during the height of the pandemic, as job and income losses, food inflation and other driving factors batter the most vulnerable people.”

The WFP said the war in Ukraine has led to a surge in commodity and energy prices, which is leading to a rise in food inflation that threatens the region since several countries are highly dependent on cereal imports. It added that Caribbean nations that import substantial amounts of food will be particularly affected due to “soaring” sea freight costs.

Before the war, wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine accounted for almost 30% of global trade, and Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat, according to the US State Department. The WFP, which helps combat global food insecurity, buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year and has warned of dire consequences if Ukrainian ports are not opened up.

Since the war began, Russia has been blocking Ukraine from exporting goods from its ports, fueling fears of a global food crisis. 

“Russia has blocked almost all ports and all, so to speak, maritime opportunities to export food — our grain, barley, sunflower and more,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday.

The US and Ukraine have also accused Russia of stealing Ukrainian grain supplies, which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says is “fake news,” according to Russian state news agencies. CNN has viewed satellite images that show two Russian ships docking and loading up with what is believed to be stolen Ukrainian grain. CNN also tracked a Russian ship carrying Ukrainian grain from Crimea to Syria after being turned away from ports in Egypt and Lebanon.

CNN’s Alex Marquardt and Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.

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