January 27, 2023

How Russia’s war on Ukraine is exacerbating global famine

ISTANBUL – Huge ships carrying Ukrainian wheat and other grain are kept in reserve along the Bosphorus Strait here in Istanbul while they await inspections before moving on 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 began Allowing some ships to passbut it continues Restrict most shipments from Ukrainewhich together with Russia once exported a quarter of the world’s wheat.

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

The ongoing global food crisis became one of the most far-reaching consequences of the Russian War, contributing to widespread starvation, poverty, and premature deaths.

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

But as a bitter winter sets in, and Russia presses attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure, the crisis is only getting worse. Food shortages are already being exacerbated by drought in the Horn of Africa and unusually harsh weather in other parts of the world.

The United Nations World Food Program appreciates this More than 345 million people suffer from, or are at risk of, infection acute food insecuritymore than double the number recorded in 2019.

“We are now dealing with a massive food insecurity crisis,” Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said last month at a summit with African leaders in Washington. “It’s a product of a lot of things, as we all know, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” he said.

Food shortages and rising prices are causing severe pain across Africa, Asia and the Americas. American officials are particularly concerned about Afghanistan and Yemen, which have been Destroyed by war. Egypt, Lebanon and other large food importers are finding it difficult to pay their debts and other expenses because of the high costs. Even in rich countries like United State And the BritainHigh inflation, driven in part by the unrest of the war, left the poor without food.

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

Ukrainians liken events to holodomorwhen Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine in Soviet-ruled Ukraine 90 years ago that killed millions.

Mr. Blinken announced on December 20 that the United States government would begin granting sweeping waivers to economic sanctions programs around the world to ensure the continued flow of food and other assistance. The measure is intended to ensure that companies and organizations do not withhold assistance for fear of running afoul of US sanctions.

State Department officials said this was the most significant change in US sanctions policy in years. The UN Security Council adopted a similar resolution on sanctions last month.

But Russia’s deliberate disruption of the global food supply poses an entirely different problem.

Moscow restricted its exports, which drove up costs elsewhere. More importantly, it halted sales of fertilizers needed by the world’s farmers. Before the war, Russia was the largest exporter of fertilizers.

Its hostilities in Ukraine have also had a significant impact. From March to November, Ukraine exported an average of 3.5 million metric tons of grain and oilseeds per month, a sharp drop from the five million to seven million metric tons per month it exported before the war began in February, according to Data from the country’s Ministry of Agricultural and Food Policy.

That figure would be even lower if it weren’t for the agreement struck in July by the United Nations, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, called Black Sea Grain InitiativeRussia agreed to allow exports from three Ukrainian seaports.

Russia continues to close seven of the thirteen ports used by Ukraine. (Ukraine has 18 ports, but five of them are in Crimea, which Russia captured in 2014.) Besides the three ports on the Black Sea, three on the Danube are in operation.

The initial deal was only for four months but was extended in November for another four months. When Russia threatened to leave in October, global food prices rose by five to six percent, said Isobel Coleman, deputy director of the US Agency for International Development.

“The effects of this war are very devastating,” she said. “Putin is pushing millions of people into poverty.”

While food price increases last year were particularly sharp in the Middle East, North Africa and South America, no region was immune.

“You look at price increases of everything from 60 percent in the United States to 1,900 percent in Sudan,” said Sarah Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, a climate and agriculture data platform that tracks food prices.

Before the war, food prices had already soared to their highest levels in more than a decade due to pandemic disruptions to the supply chain and rampant drought.

The United States, Brazil and Argentina, the world’s major grain producers, have experienced three consecutive years of drought. The Mississippi fell so low that barges carrying American grain to ports were temporarily grounded.

The weakness of many foreign currencies against the US dollar has also forced some countries to buy less food in the international market than in previous years.

“There were a lot of structural issues, and then the war made things much worse,” Ms. Munkar said.

US officials say the Russian military deliberately targeted Ukraine’s grain storage facilities, a possible war crime, destroyed wheat processing plants.

Many farmers in Ukraine have gone to war or fled their land, and the infrastructure that made and transported wheat and sunflower oil to foreign markets has broken down.

On a farm 190 miles south of Kyiv, 40 of the 350 employees enlisted in the army. And the farm suffers from another deficiency. Russian attacks on the energy grid led to the closure of a factory supplying nitrogen fertilizer to his farm and others, said Kees Huizinga, the Dutch partner.

Other fertilizer plants in Europe had to stop or slow production last year as natural gas prices rose as a result of the war. Natural gas is critical to fertilizer production.

“This year’s harvest has really gone down,” Huizinga said in November. “And if the Russians continue like this, next year’s harvest could be even worse.”

He added that transportation costs have risen sharply for farmers in Ukraine.

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

Mr. Huizinga said Russia’s solution to the Black Sea shipments has helped, but he suspects Moscow is hindering operations by slowing down inspections.

Under the arrangement, every ship leaving one of Ukraine’s three Black Sea ports must be screened by joint teams of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and UN staff once the ship reaches Istanbul.

Ismini Palla, a spokeswoman for the UN office that oversees the programme, said teams are looking for any unauthorized cargo or crew members, and ships bound for Ukraine must be clear of cargo.

United Nations data It appears that the rate of inspections has decreased in recent weeks. Both parties agreed to deploy three teams each day, Ms. Bala said, adding that the UN had requested more.

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

Ms. Bala said the parties’ decision in November to extend the agreement contributed to a 2.8 percent decline in global wheat prices.

Over the past six months, food prices have fallen from their highest levels this spring, according to an index compiled by the United Nations. But it remains much higher than in previous years.

The uncertainty for farmers this winter is higher fertilizer prices, one of their biggest costs.

Farmers have given up the high cost by increasing the price of food products. Many farmers use less fertilizer in their fields. This will lead to lower crop yields in the coming seasons, which will lead to higher food prices.

Coleman said subsistence farms, which produce nearly a third of the world’s food, are being hit the hardest.

In a statement released at the conclusion of their meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November, G20 leaders expressed deep concern about the challenges facing global food security and pledged to support 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 it started a program called Feed the Future after the last major food crisis, in 2010, that now includes 20 countries.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine War, the United States has provided more than $11 billion to address the food crisis. That includes a $100 million program called AGRI-Ukraine, Ms. Coleman said, which has helped some 13,000 farmers in Ukraine — 27 percent of the total — gain access to finance, technology, transportation, seeds, fertilizer, sacks and mobile storage units.

The effort could help rebuild the country while alleviating the global food crisis — a fifth of Ukraine’s economy is employed in the agricultural sector, and a fifth of the country’s workforce is tied to it.

“It is very important for the Ukrainian economy, for the economic survival of Ukraine,” she said.

Edward Wong Reported from Istanbul, Washington, and Anna Swanson from Washington.