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Russian troops bombed granaries and farms and looted Ukrainian wheat, which US diplomats say Moscow is now trying to sell. Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea are blocked by mines to protect the coastline from attacks by the Russian fleet, which is also blocking supplies. And yet, if President Vladimir Putin is to be believed, it is Western selfishness and sanctions that are to blame for the current food crisis that is driving prices up, not Russia’s invasion of one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

Putin is trying to blackmail the West into lifting the punitive measures, and this is to be expected. But even more worrying is the Kremlin’s spread of lies that rich countries intervene and punish without caring about the poorest. In the developing world, the population is already skeptical of Western motives, not to mention highly sensitive to rising food prices, and its governments fear that the combination of pandemic scars and expensive shopping baskets will lead to protests. “The conflict is taking place in Europe, but the consequences and damage are global,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussain told a security meeting in Singapore this weekend in a speech highlighting the risks ahead, emphatically referring to the unrest in Sri Lanka and the rapid rise in inflation in Pakistan.

Seeing an opportunity for division, the Kremlin is fueling those fears and sowing mistrust at a time when Ukraine desperately needs practical support and a broader coalition is needed to isolate Russia economically. A more assertive food diplomacy is long overdue.

Wealthy countries imposing sanctions on Russia should make it clear that they recognize that concerns about global hunger are not unfounded—freedom is not free—and answer the question of the costs, as well as the reasons for incurring them, in terms that will resonate. . Russia is waging a war of conquest against a country it considers a colony, as is familiar to many in the developing world. As President Volodymyr Zelensky told the same Singaporean audience, quoting Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, “if big fish ate small fish and small fish ate shrimp,” many would be vulnerable.

But rich countries can also defuse some of the panic: the problem here is not scarcity, but access and price. They should support Ukraine in its urgent effort to move grain and other hoarded products out of the country by land or sea, and prepare to provide support to farmers and buyers if this becomes too costly to be practical. The international community must simultaneously lower trade and other barriers to food and resources, making sure (for fertilizers in particular) that excessive enforcement of sanctions does not exacerbate a bad situation.

The problem, of course, is that this war is being fought between two countries that are some of the world’s largest food exporters, with Russia and Ukraine supplying, in particular, the world’s poorer countries that depend on this wheat for their calories. The two countries accounted for nearly a third of global wheat exports last year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Eritrea bought all of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021, while Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, sourced most of its needs there. Russia (along with ally Belarus) is also a major fertilizer producer, meaning that other food exporters are in turn suffering from its vicissitudes – not to mention being a major oil and gas exporter, lifting everything up again. from transport to nitrogen fertilizers, even higher. .

Worst of all, the invasion comes at a time when food prices have already been rising for the better part of two years due to Covid-19, high energy, logistics and fertilizer costs, and climate disruption. The FAO Food Price Index, which tracks the world’s best-selling commodities, hit an all-time high in March. This made poor countries even more vulnerable and foreign exchange depleted.

Putin knows he can use basic food supplies and the means to produce them as weapons to hurt Ukraine. He has already hit agricultural targets, and his troops have made it impossible to supply starving cities like Mariupol. It was reminiscent of the brutal famine perpetrated in Ukraine under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as he tried to suppress nationalism and cultural autonomy.

But Russia’s position is even stronger as a means of forcing Ukraine’s allies into a Faustian pact that would trade fertilizers and agricultural products for sanctions relief and further pressure on them through the Global South. Putin should not be given this space.

Allied countries must provide significant financial support to Putin and the famine. Initiatives such as FAO’s proposed Food Import Financing Facility will help cushion global food import spending, which is set to rise by $51 billion this year, of which $49 billion is attributable to higher prices. It can and should be expanded – with the help of good news broadcast around the world. Country financial support also matters, as do social safety nets and, ultimately, humanitarian assistance. An unequal burden must be shared.

In addition, it is necessary, both for Ukraine and for world markets, to release the millions of metric tons of grain stuck in the country. Vital efforts are currently underway to use land routes and unblock ports, but as David Laborde, senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out, land routes are slow and costly, while the sea alternative is difficult, not least considering the risk that any escalation there would jeopardize other still operating Black Sea routes. The bottom line, he argues, cannot be to take the grain out at any cost if there are better ways to support buyers and Ukrainians.

It is also important to keep the markets open. That means encouraging countries not to build barriers and loosen biofuel mandates, and ensuring that sanctions don’t hit where they shouldn’t – such are the US efforts to encourage shipping companies to ship Russian fertilizer. Additional legal and technical support can help shippers, bankers and insurers deal with the current exemptions.

Other solutions will serve the world well beyond this and next year, including providing farmers with better information about better use of crop nutrients, promoting domestic fertilizer production, and diversifying crops and consumption to secure supplies — because the war is in Ukraine intensified. a food crisis that climate change promises to exacerbate.

Putin may have started this food battle, but the rest of the world can still win it.

More from Bloomberg:

The hard lessons of the war in Ukraine: Leonid Bershidsky

It’s time to remove the biofuel from the gas tank: David Fickling

• The world food system is too dependent on wheat: Jessica Fanzo

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marquez is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering international affairs and climate. She previously worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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