Written by Kelvin Chan and Paul Weissman, AP . Business Writer
LONDON (Associated Press) – Russian hostilities in Ukraine are preventing grain from leaving the “breadbasket of the world” and making food more expensive worldwide, threatening to exacerbate shortages, hunger and political instability in developing countries.
Russia and Ukraine together export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley, and more than 70% of sunflower oil, and are major suppliers of corn. Russia is the world’s largest producer of fertilizers.
Global food prices were already on the rise, and the war made matters worse, preventing some 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia.
Weeks of negotiations over safe passages to get grain out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have made little progress, with urgency growing as the summer harvest approaches.
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“This has to happen in the next couple of months (or) it’s going to be awful,” said Anna Nagorny, who studies crisis management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a board member of the Kyiv School of Economics.
It says 400 million people worldwide depend on Ukraine’s food supply. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that up to 181 million people in 41 countries may face a food crisis or worse levels of hunger this year.
Here’s a look at the global food crisis:
Normally, 90% of wheat and other grains from Ukrainian fields are shipped to world markets by sea but have been stopped due to the Russian blockade of the Black Sea coast.
Some of the grain is rerouted through Europe by rail, road and river, but the amount is a drop in the bucket compared to sea routes. Shipments are also supported because Ukraine’s railway gauges do not match those of its neighbors to the West.
Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister, Markyan Dmitrasevich, has asked EU lawmakers to help export more grain, including expanding the use of a Romanian port on the Black Sea, building more shipping terminals on the Danube, and cutting bureaucracy for shipping transit on the Polish border. .
But this means that food is far from those who need it.
“Now you have to go all the way across Europe to get back to the Mediterranean. ‘It really added an incredible amount of cost to Ukrainian grain,’” said Joseph Glauber, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
Glober, a former chief economist at the US Department of Agriculture, said Ukraine has only been able to export 1.5 million to 2 million tons of grain per month since the war, down from more than 6 million tons.
Also, Russian grains do not come out. Moscow argues that Western sanctions on its banking and shipping industries make it impossible for Russia to export food and fertilizer and discourage foreign shipping companies from carrying them. Russian officials insist that sanctions be lifted to get the grain to world markets.
But European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other Western leaders say the sanctions do not touch food.
What do the parties say?
Ukraine accused Russia of bombing agricultural infrastructure, burning fields, stealing grain and trying to sell it to Syria after Lebanon and Egypt refused to buy it. Satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies in late May show Russian-flagged ships at a port in Crimea laden with grain and then docked days later in Syria with their doors open.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia has triggered 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 weaponizing food.
Russia says exports can resume once Ukraine clears mines in the Black Sea and incoming ships can be checked for weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed that Moscow would not “abuse” its naval advantage and “will take all necessary steps to ensure that ships can leave there freely.”
Ukrainian and Western officials are suspicious of the pledge. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that it might be possible to establish safe corridors without having to clear sea mines because the location of the IEDs was known.
But other questions will remain, such as whether insurance companies will provide coverage for ships.
Dmitrasevich told EU agriculture ministers this week that the only solution was to defeat Russia and open the ports: “No other interim measures, such as humanitarian corridors, will address this issue.”
Food prices had been rising before the invasion, as a result of factors including bad weather and poor crops that cut supplies, while global demand rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glauber cited the poor wheat harvest last year in the United States and Canada and the drought that hit soybean crops in Brazil. Climate change has also been exacerbated by climate change, with the Horn of Africa facing one of its worst droughts in four decades, while a record heat wave in India in March has reduced wheat yields.
This, along with rising fuel and fertilizer costs, has prevented other large grain-producing countries from filling the gaps.
Ukraine and Russia are exporting basic foodstuffs to developing countries that are most vulnerable to rising costs and shortages.
Countries such as Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan rely heavily on wheat, corn, and sunflower oil from the two warring countries.
“The extreme poor are bearing the brunt, and this is without a doubt a humanitarian crisis,” Glauber said.
Besides the threat of hunger, rising food prices threaten political instability in such countries. It was one of the causes of the Arab Spring, and there are fears of its recurrence.
Glauber said developing country governments should either let food prices rise or subsidize costs. He said a moderately prosperous country like Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, could afford the high food costs.
“For poor countries like Yemen or the countries of the Horn of Africa – they really need humanitarian aid,” he said.
Famine and famine haunt that part of Africa. Prices of basic foodstuffs such as wheat and cooking oil in some cases more than doubled, while millions of livestock that families use for milk and meat have died. In Sudan and Yemen, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict came on top of years of internal crises.
UNICEF has warned of an “explosion in child deaths” if the world focuses only on the war in Ukraine and does not act. UN agencies have estimated that more than 200,000 people in Somalia are facing “catastrophic starvation and famine”, nearly 18 million Sudanese may suffer from acute hunger by September, and 19 million Yemenis face food insecurity this year.
Wheat prices in some of those countries have risen by as much as 750%.
“In general, everything has become expensive. Whether it is water, whether it is food, it has become almost impossible,” said Justus Leko, a food security advisor at the charity CARE, after visiting Somalia recently.
Leko said the vendor selling cooked food “contains no vegetables or animal products. No milk, no meat. The shopkeeper was telling us she was just there to be there.”
In Lebanon, bakeries that used to have many types of flat bread now sell only basic white pita bread to preserve the flour.
Weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried to secure a deal to lift a ban on Russian exports of grain and fertilizer and allow Ukraine to ship goods from the main port of Odessa. But progress has been slow.
A huge amount of grain is stuck in Ukrainian silos or on farms in the meantime. And there’s more to come – Ukraine’s harvest of winter wheat will begin soon, putting more pressure on storage facilities even as some fields may not be harvested and because of the fighting.
Serhiy Herbtsov cannot sell the mountain of grain on his farm in the Donbass because the transmission lines have been cut. Few buyers mean prices are so low that farming is unsustainable.
“There are some options for sale, but it’s like just getting rid of them,” he said.
US President Joe Biden has said he is working with European partners on a plan to build temporary silos on Ukraine’s borders, including with Poland, a solution that would also address various rail gauges between Ukraine and Europe.
The idea is that the grain can be transported to silos, then “to cars in Europe and taken out to the ocean and transported across the world. It takes time,” he said in a speech on Tuesday.
Dmitrasevich said Ukraine’s grain storage capacity was reduced from 15 to 60 million tons after Russian forces destroyed silos or occupied positions in the south and east.
Global production of wheat, rice and other grains is expected to reach 2.78 billion tons in 2022, down 16 million tons from the previous year – the first decline in four years, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
Wheat prices are up 45% in the first three months of the year compared to the previous year, according to the FAO’s Wheat Price Index. Vegetable oil prices jumped 41%, while sugar, meat, milk and fish prices doubled.
The increases are driving up inflation around the world, making groceries more expensive and increasing costs for restaurateurs, who have had to raise prices.
Some countries react by trying to protect domestic supplies. India has restricted exports of sugar and wheat, while Malaysia has halted exports of live chicken, which has alarmed Singapore, which gets a third of its poultry from its neighbour.
The International Food Policy Research Institute says that if food shortages worsen as the war drags on, it could lead to more export restrictions driving up prices.
Another threat is scarce and expensive fertilizers, which means fields can be less productive as farmers skimp, said Steve Matthews of Grow Intelligence, an agricultural data and analytics company.
There is a particularly large shortage of two major chemicals in fertilizers, and Russia is a large supplier of them.
“If the shortages in potassium and phosphate that we have now continue, we will see lower yields. There is no doubt about that in the coming years,” Matthews said.
Associated Press correspondents Noha El Hennawy in Cairo. Kara Anna and Ilog Willie Kanisa in Nairobi, Kenya; Zina Karam in Beirut, Lebanon; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Lorne Cook in Brussels; Darlene Superville in Philadelphia; and Susan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey.
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