Russia’s war in Ukraine keeps grain from leaving the “breadbasket of the world” and makes food more expensive around the world, threatening to exacerbate shortages, hunger and political instability in developing countries.

Together, Russia and Ukraine export almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley, more than 70% of sunflower oil and are major suppliers of corn.

Russia is the world’s largest fertilizer producer.

World food prices were already on the rise, and the war made things worse by preventing about 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia.

Weeks of talks on safe corridors for exporting grain from Ukrainian Black Sea ports have brought little progress, and the urgency grows as the summer harvest season approaches.

“It should happen in the next couple of months. [or] it will be terrible,” said Anna Nagourni, who studies crisis management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is on the board of the Kyiv School of Economics.

She says that 400 million people around the world depend on Ukrainian food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or more severe hunger this year.

Here is a look at the global food crisis:

What is the situation?

As a rule, 90 percent of wheat and other grains from Ukrainian fields are delivered to world markets by sea, but are delayed by the Russian blockade of the Black Sea coast.

Some grain is redirected across Europe by rail, road and river transport, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to sea routes. Deliveries are also constrained by the fact that the gauge of Ukrainian railways does not match the gauge of its western neighbors.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Agriculture Markian Dmitrasevich has asked European Union lawmakers to help export more grain, including expanding the use of a Romanian port on the Black Sea, building more cargo terminals on the Danube River and cutting red tape for freight traffic on the Polish border.

But that means food is further away from those who need it.

“Now you have to go all over Europe to get back to the Mediterranean. It really increased the value of Ukrainian grain incredibly,” said Joseph Glauber, senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Since the start of the war, Ukraine has only been able to export between 1.5 million and 2 million tons of grain per month, compared to more than 6 million tons, according to Glauber.

Russian grain is also not coming out.

Moscow claims that Western sanctions on its banking and shipping business are preventing Russia from exporting food and fertilizer and deterring foreign shipping companies from shipping them. Russian officials are pushing for sanctions to be lifted so grain can go to world markets.

However, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other Western leaders say the sanctions do not apply to food.

A Ukrainian farmer in a bulletproof vest and helmet while working in the fields in the Zaporozhye region, Ukraine, April 2022 [File photo: Ueslei Marcelino]
A Ukrainian farmer in a bulletproof vest and helmet while working in the fields in the Zaporozhye region, Ukraine, April 2022 [File photo: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

What are the parties saying?

Ukraine has accused Russia of shelling agricultural infrastructure, burning fields, stealing grain and trying to sell it to Syria after Lebanon and Egypt refused to buy it.

Satellite imagery taken in late May by Maxar Technologies shows Russian-flagged ships loading grain in a Crimean port and moored in Syria with open hatches a few days later.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia provoked a global food crisis. The West agrees with officials such as European Council President Charles Michel and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that Russia is using food as a weapon.

Russia says exports could resume once Ukraine removes the mines in the Black Sea and incoming ships are checked for weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed that Moscow would not “abuse” its naval advantage and “take all necessary steps to ensure that ships can leave freely.”

Ukrainian and Western officials doubt this promise.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that it is possible to create safe corridors without the need to clear sea mines, as the location of explosive devices is known.

But other questions remain, such as whether insurers will provide coverage for ships.

This week, Dmitrasevich told EU agriculture ministers that the only solution is to defeat Russia and unblock the ports: “No other temporary measures, such as humanitarian corridors, will solve the problem.”

How did we get here?

Food prices were rising before the invasion due to factors such as bad weather and poor harvests, which cut supplies while global demand rebounded strongly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Glauber cited poor wheat harvests last year in the US and Canada, as well as a drought that damaged soybeans in Brazil.

In addition, exacerbated by climate change, the Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the worst droughts in four decades, and record-breaking heatwaves in India in March reduced wheat yields.

This, along with rising fuel and fertilizer prices, has prevented other major grain-producing countries from filling in the gaps.

Who suffered the most?

Ukraine and Russia mainly export their main products to developing countries, which are most vulnerable to price increases and shortages.

Countries such as Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan are heavily dependent on wheat, corn and sunflower oil from the two warring countries.

“That burden falls on the very poor,” Glauber said. “This is a humanitarian crisis, no question.”

In addition to the threat of famine, soaring food prices are fraught with political instability in such countries. They were one of the causes of the “Arab Spring” and there are fears that it could happen again.

Glauber said governments in developing countries should either let food prices rise or subsidize spending. A moderately prosperous country like Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, can afford higher food costs, he said.

“Poor countries like Yemen or the Horn of Africa will really need humanitarian aid,” he said.

Hunger and famine haunt this part of Africa. Prices for staple foods such as wheat and vegetable oil have more than doubled in some cases, while millions of livestock that families use to produce milk and meat have died. In Sudan and Yemen, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been superimposed on years of internal crises.

UNICEF has warned of an “explosion in child mortality” if the world focuses only on the war in Ukraine and does not act.

UN agencies estimate that more than 200,000 people in Somalia are facing “catastrophic famine and starvation,” an estimated 18 million Sudanese could experience acute hunger by September, and 19 million Yemenis will face food insecurity this year.

Wheat prices have risen by as much as 750 percent in some of these countries.

“In general, everything has risen in price. Whether it’s water, whether it’s food, it becomes next to impossible,” said Justus Liku, food security adviser for aid group CARE, who recently visited Somalia.

In Lebanon, bakeries that used to have many types of flatbread now sell only basic white pita bread to save on flour.

What is being done?

For weeks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has been trying to negotiate an agreement to unlock Russian grain and fertilizer exports and allow Ukraine to ship goods from the key port of Odessa. But progress has been slow.

Meanwhile, a huge amount of grain got stuck in Ukrainian elevators or on farms. And that’s not all: Winter wheat harvesting is about to begin in Ukraine, putting additional strain on storage even though some fields are likely to remain unharvested due to the fighting.

Sergei Khrebtsov cannot sell a mountain of grain from his farm in the Donbass, because the transport connection is disabled. The lack of buyers means that prices are so low that agriculture becomes unsustainable.

“There are several options for selling, but it’s like throwing away,” he said.

US President Joe Biden says he is working with European partners on a plan to build temporary grain elevators on Ukraine’s borders, including with Poland, a solution that would also deal with different gauges between Ukraine and Europe.

The idea is that the grain can be loaded into silos and then “to trucks in Europe, taken to the ocean and delivered around the world. But it takes time,” he said in a speech on Tuesday.

What costs more?

According to the FAO Wheat Price Index, wheat prices increased by 45 percent in the first three months of the year compared to the previous year. Vegetable oil jumped 41 percent, while prices for sugar, meat, milk and fish also rose by double digits.

This increase is fueling faster inflation worldwide, making food more expensive and increasing costs for restaurant owners who have been forced to raise prices.

Some countries are reacting by trying to protect domestic supplies. India has restricted the export of sugar and wheat, and Malaysia has suspended the export of live chickens, raising alarms in Singapore, which gets a third of its poultry from its neighbour.

The International Food Policy Research Institute says that if food shortages become more acute as the war drags on, it could lead to new export restrictions, further pushing up prices.

Another threat is fertilizer shortages and high prices, meaning fields could be less productive as farmers save money, said Steve Matthews of Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data and analytics company.

The deficit of two main chemicals in fertilizers, of which Russia is a major supplier, is especially great.

“If we continue to have the potassium and phosphate shortages that we have now, we will see a drop in yields,” Matthews said. “In the coming years, this is out of the question.”

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