Ukraine crisis causing global food shortage

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


June 28, 2022

Russia-Ukraine war has dragged on far too long and beyond the expectations of the overly-confident Russian leadership that is gradually getting desperate. In sheer desperation Russia has blockaded millions of tons of Ukrainian grain that is castigated as a real war crime by the European Union. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its fourth month, is preventing grain from leaving the breadbasket of the world and making food more expensive across the globe. The EU has strongly condemned this action and has stated that it is inconceivable and one cannot imagine that millions of tons of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger. Western countries have demanded Russia stop blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and allow vast stores of grain to reach world markets.

The blockade has sparked warnings that tens of millions of people are at risk of famine and sent food prices soaring. The EU, a 27-nation bloc, disputes Russia’s claims that rising prices and food shortages in the Middle East and Africa are down to EU sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine. It insists that it is not European sanctions that are creating this crisis as they do not target food and that the problem comes from the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grains. EU added that Russia must stop playing with global hunger as it seeks leverage on the West. And that leaving cereals blocked is dangerous for stability in the world.

Russian forces’ blockade of Ukrainian ports, destruction and alleged theft of the country’s grains and agricultural machinery and shells and mines now strewn across its fields are threatening to worsen shortages, hunger and political instability in developing countries. Weeks of negotiations on safe corridors to get grain out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have made little progress, with urgency rising as the summer harvest season arrives. It is pointed out that 400 million people worldwide rely on Ukrainian food supplies. Together, Russia and Ukraine export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley, more than 70% of its sunflower oil and are prominent suppliers of corn. Russia is the top global fertiliser producer.

The war made the already-climbing world food prices skyrocket by preventing some 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia. Up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or even outright famine with costs going up as Ukraine seeks alternative export routes. Typically 90% of wheat and other grain from Ukraine’s fields are shipped to world markets by sea. However, Russian blockades of the Black Sea coast have held up most of the country’s exports. Some grain is being rerouted through Europe by rail, road and river, but the amount is minimal compared to sea routes. Additionally, the shipments are running behind because Ukraine’s rail gauges do not match those of its neighbours to the west.

Ukraine has only been able to export 1.5 million to 2 million tons of grain a month since the war, down from more than 6 million tonnes. Russian grain is also not getting out. Moscow argues that Western sanctions on its banking and shipping industries make it impossible for Russia to export food and fertiliser, scaring off foreign shipping companies from carrying it. Russian officials insist sanctions must be lifted to get grain to global markets. Russia rejects abuse of naval advantage and accusations of crops destruction, theft. Satellite images show Russian-flagged ships in a port in Crimea being loaded with grain and then days later docked in Syria with their hatches open. Russia says exports can resume once Ukraine removes mines in the Black Sea and arriving ships can be checked for weapons in an attempt to prevent Western arms donations from reaching the country.

Food prices were already rising before the invasion due to factors including bad weather and poor harvests cutting supplies, while global demand rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation has been aggravated due to poor wheat harvests last year in the US and Canada and a drought that hurt soybean yields in Brazil. Also exacerbated by climate change, the Horn of Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in four decades, while a record-shattering heat wave in South Asia reduced wheat yields. That, along with soaring costs for fuel and fertiliser, has prevented other big grain-producing countries from filling in the gaps. Ukraine and Russia mainly export staples to developing countries most vulnerable to cost hikes and shortages. Countries like Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan rely heavily on wheat, corn and sunflower oil from the two warring nations.

Besides the threat of hunger, spiraling food prices risk political instability in such countries. They were one of the causes of the Arab Spring, and there are worries of a repeat. The governments of developing countries must either let food prices rise or subsidise costs. A moderately prosperous country like Egypt, the world’s top wheat importer, can afford to absorb higher food costs but for poor countries like Yemen or countries in the Horn of Africa are really going to need humanitarian aid. Starvation and famine are plaguing that part of Africa. Prices for staples like wheat and cooking oil are more than doubling in some cases, while millions of livestock that families use for milk and meat have died. In Sudan and Yemen, the Russia-Ukraine conflict came on top of years of domestic conflict.

UNICEF warned about an explosion of child deaths if the world focuses only on the war in Ukraine and does not act. UN agencies estimated that more than 200,000 people in Somalia face catastrophic hunger and starvation, roughly 18 million Sudanese could experience acute hunger by September, and 19 million Yemenis face food insecurity this year. Wheat prices have risen in some countries by as much as 750%. A recent report has estimated that an additional 47 million people are projected to experience acute hunger this year, with countries in Central America and the Caribbean also seeing food prices well above the five-year average. Other major human rights and humanitarian NGOs have warned Europe that this might cause a large wave of immigration to the richer countries in the West, especially from countries where citizens are at risk of violence, conflict and persecution.

For weeks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been trying to secure an agreement to unblock Russian exports of grain and fertiliser and allow Ukraine to ship commodities from the key port of Odessa but progress has been slow. A vast amount of grain is stuck in Ukrainian silos or on farms in the meantime. And there is more coming — Ukraine’s winter wheat harvest is getting underway soon, putting more stress on storage facilities even as some fields are likely to go un-harvested because of the fighting. Ukraine’s grain storage capacity was reduced by 15 million to 60 million tons after Russian troops destroyed silos or occupied sites in the south and east. Wheat prices are up 45% in the first three months of the year compared with 2021 and vegetable oil has jumped 41%, while sugar, meat, milk and fish prices also rose by double digits. The increases are fuelling faster inflation worldwide, making staples more expensive and raising costs forcing vendors to increase prices. TW


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