Russia’s war on Ukraine worsens global famine

ISTANBUL – Towering ships carrying Ukrainian wheat and other grains are stuck along the Bosphorus here in Istanbul awaiting inspections before heading to ports around the world.

The number of ships sailing through this narrow strait, which connects Black Sea ports to wider waters, plummeted when Russia invaded Ukraine 10 months ago and imposed a naval blockade. Under diplomatic pressure, Moscow has begun allowing some ships through but continues to restrict most shipments from Ukraine, which, along with Russia, once exported a quarter of the world’s wheat.

And in the few Ukrainian ports that are operational, Russian missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid periodically cripple grain terminals where wheat and corn are loaded onto ships.

A lingering global food crisis became one of the most profound consequences of the Russian war, contributing to widespread starvation, poverty and premature death.

The United States and its allies are struggling to reduce the damage. US officials are organizing efforts to help Ukrainian farmers get food out of their country through rail and road networks that connect to Eastern Europe and on barges up the Danube.

But as winter sets in and Russia launches attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure, the crisis deepens. Food shortages are already exacerbated by a drought in the Horn of Africa and unusually harsh weather conditions in other parts of the world.

The United Nations World Food Program estimates that more than 345 million people suffer or are at risk of acute food insecurity, more than double the number in 2019.

“We now face a crisis of massive food insecurity,” Antony J. Blinken, US Secretary of State, said last month during a summit with African leaders in Washington. “It’s the product of many things, as we all know,” he said, “including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Food shortages and high prices are causing intense pain across Africa, Asia and the Americas. US officials are particularly worried about Afghanistan and Yemen, which have been ravaged by war. Egypt, Lebanon and other major food-importing countries are struggling to pay debts and other expenses as costs have risen. Even in wealthy countries like the United States and Britain, soaring inflation brought about in part by the disruptions of war left the poorest without enough to eat.

“By attacking Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world, Putin is attacking the world’s poor, increasing world hunger when people are already on the brink of starvation,” said Agency administrator Samantha Power. United States for International Development, or USAID.

Ukrainians liken the events to the Holodomor, when Joseph Stalin caused a famine in Soviet-ruled Ukraine 90 years ago that killed millions.

Mr. Blinken announced on December 20 that the US government would begin granting blanket exceptions to its economic sanctions programs around the world to ensure that food aid and other forms of assistance continued to flow. The action aims to ensure that companies and organizations do not withhold aid for fear of breaching US sanctions.

State Department officials said it was the most significant change to US sanctions policy in years. The United Nations Security Council passed a similar sanctions resolution last month.

But Russia’s intentional disruption of global food supplies poses an entirely different problem.

Moscow has restricted its own exports, raising costs elsewhere. More importantly, it has halted sales of fertilizers, which the world’s farmers need. Before the war, Russia was the largest fertilizer exporter.

His hostilities in Ukraine also had a major impact. From March to November, Ukraine exported an average of 3.5 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds per month, a sharp drop from the five million to seven million metric tons per month it exported before the the war began in February, according to country data. Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food.

That number would be even lower were it not for an agreement reached in July by the United Nations, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, in which Russia agreed to allow exports from three seaports. Ukrainians.

Russia continues to block seven of the 13 ports used by Ukraine. (Ukraine has 18 ports, but five are in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.) In addition to the three on the Black Sea, three on the Danube are operational.

The initial deal was only for four months, but was extended in November for another four months. When Russia threatened to quit in October, global food prices jumped 5 to 6 percent, said Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator at USAID.

“The effects of this war are extremely, extremely disruptive,” she said. “Putin is pushing millions into poverty.”

While food price increases over the past year have been particularly steep in the Middle East, North Africa and South America, no region has been spared.

“You’re looking at price increases ranging from 60% in the United States to 1900% in Sudan,” said Sara Menker, chief executive of Gro Intelligence, a climate and agricultural data platform that tracks food prices.

Prior to the war, food prices had already reached their highest level in more than a decade due to pandemic supply chain disruptions and widespread drought.

The United States, Brazil and Argentina, the main grain producers in the world, have experienced three consecutive years of drought. The level of the Mississippi River has dropped so much that the barges carrying American grain to ports have been temporarily beached.

The weakening of many foreign currencies against the US dollar has also forced some countries to buy less food on the international market than in the past.

“There were a lot of structural problems, and then the war just made it worse,” Ms Menker said.

US officials say the Russian military deliberately targeted grain storage facilities in Ukraine, a potential war crime, and destroyed wheat processing plants.

Many Ukrainian farmers went to war or fled their land, and the infrastructure that processed and transported wheat and sunflower oil to foreign markets collapsed.

At a farm 300 km south of Kyiv, 40 of the 350 employees have joined the army. And the farm is struggling with other shortages. Kees Huizinga, the Dutch co-owner, said Russia’s attacks on the energy grid led to the closure of a factory that supplies his farm and others with nitrogen fertilizer.

Other fertilizer plants in Europe were forced to close or slow production last year as natural gas prices soared due to the war. Natural gas is essential for the production of fertilizers.

“So this year’s harvest has already been reduced,” Huizinga said in November. “And if the Russians continue like this, next year’s harvest could be even worse.”

He added that transport costs have risen sharply for Ukrainian farmers.

Before the war, farmers shipped 95% of the country’s wheat and grain exports through the Black Sea. Mr. Huizinga’s farm paid between $23 and $24 a ton to transport its products to ports and on ships. Now the cost has more than doubled, he said. And an alternative route – by truck to Romania – costs $85 a ton.

Mr Huizinga said Russia’s compromise on Black Sea shipments had helped, but he suspects Moscow is hampering operations by slowing inspections.

According to this agreement, every ship leaving one of the three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea must be inspected by joint teams of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and United Nations employees once the ship reaches Istanbul.

Teams search for any unauthorized cargo or crew, and ships heading to Ukraine must be empty of cargo, said Ismini Palla, spokesperson for the UN office overseeing the program.

UN data shows that the rate of inspections has dropped in recent weeks. The parties agreed to deploy three teams each day, Ms Palla said, adding that the United Nations had requested more.

“We hope this will change soon, so that Ukrainian ports can operate at greater capacity again,” she said. “Ukrainian exports remain a vital element in the fight against global food insecurity.”

Ms Palla said the parties’ decision in November to extend the deal had contributed to a 2.8% drop in world wheat prices.

Over the past six months, food prices have retreated from highs reached this spring, according to an index compiled by the United Nations. But they remain much higher than in previous years.

One uncertainty for farmers this winter is soaring fertilizer prices, one of their biggest costs.

Farmers passed on the higher cost by increasing food prices. And many farmers are using less fertilizer on their fields. This will result in lower crop yields in the coming seasons, driving up food prices.

Subsistence farms, which produce nearly a third of the world’s food, are even harder hit, Ms Coleman said.

In a statement issued after their meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November, the Group of 20 leaders said they were deeply concerned about challenges to global food security and pledged to support the international efforts to keep food supply chains functioning. .

“We need to strengthen trade cooperation, not weaken it,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization, said at the summit.

The US government spends about $2 billion a year on global food security and launched a program called Feed the Future after the last major food crisis in 2010, which now encompasses 20 countries.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the United States has provided more than $11 billion to address the food crisis. This includes a $100 million program called AGRI-Ukraine, which has helped around 13,000 Ukrainian farmers – 27% of the total – access finance, technology, transport, seeds, fertilizers, bags and tools. mobile storage units, Ms. Coleman said.

These efforts could help rebuild the country while alleviating the global food crisis – one-fifth of Ukraine’s economy is in the agricultural sector and one-fifth of the country’s workforce is related to it.

“It’s extremely important for the Ukrainian economy,” she said, “and for Ukraine’s economic survival.”

Edward Wong reported from Istanbul and Washington, and Ana Swanson from Washington.


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