UN attempts to broker deal to release millions of tons of grain from Ukraine at risk of rotting
A new global crisis is emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine, with the potential to cause millions of people to go hungry, push food prices higher, and spark unrest far from the conflict zone.
More than 20 million tons of grain are stuck in silos at Ukrainian ports, as Russian blockades prevent ships setting sail with wheat, corn and other exports. Russian forces have also been accused of stealing grain and deliberately destroying storage warehouses in Ukraine.
The grain is at risk of rotting before reaching the Middle East and Africa, where it’s desperately needed to stave off a global food security crisis, which is worsening due to rising prices for food, fuel and other goods.
“This is a crisis on top of a crisis that is completely avoidable, and due to the decisions of one leader“
Together, Russia and Ukraine account for more than a quarter of global wheat supplies, exporting to countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen and Somalia, among many others.
“These are the most vulnerable populations in the world, so the consequences are extremely dire,” said David Ortega, a food economist and associate professor at Michigan State University.
This week, Canada, the United States and allies are holding crisis talks at the United Nations, appealing to Russia to open land, rail or sea corridors so Ukraine’s exports can reach their destinations – and fast.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, top, chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks on food insecurity and conflict in New York on Thursday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada was prepared to send cargo ships and experts, including grain inspectors, to ports in Romania and neighbouring countries on the Black Sea, to help Ukraine get its wheat out.
The UN and other international agencies say tens of millions of people in developing countries will suffer from malnourishment, hunger and famine as prices for grain, oil and other foods soar due to the war.
“There is enough food for everyone in the world. The issue is distribution, and it is deeply linked to the war in Ukraine,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council on Thursday.
Warnings of potential for unrest
Beyond humanitarian concerns, there are fears rising food prices, which come on the back of the pandemic and severe droughts, could spark civil unrest.
“If people can’t feed their children and their families, then the politics unsettles,” the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, David Beasley, told CNN, warning of the potential for “riots, famine, destabilization and then mass migration by necessity”.
Analysts see similarities between the current situation and soaring food prices in 2007 and 2008 that led to “food riots” around the world. Current food supply challenges, experts said, have been compounded by the pandemic.
Protesters burn tires on the streets in Mozambique’s capital Maputo on Feb. 5, 2008. Anger over high food and fuel costs sparked violent unrest across the globe in 2007 and 2008. (Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters)
“Because of the effects of COVID, food insecurity was reaching perhaps the highest levels this century,” said Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“This is a crisis on top of a crisis. And also, this crisis right now is completely avoidable. It’s due to the decisions of one leader,” she said, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, Welsh said, while food prices can be “the spark in the tinderbox” for unrest, such as the Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s, those movements also involved longer-term discontent over governance.
Canadians are also feeling the impact of the rising global wheat prices. New inflation data, released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday, shows the price of bread jumped 12.2 per cent between April 2021 and last month, while pasta prices jumped 19.6 per cent.
A global response to a global crisis
Food security experts say the growing global food crisis needs a coordinated international response, pointing to another spike in wheat prices earlier this week after India – the world’s second-largest wheat producer after China – announced it was banning wheat exports due to heatwaves stunting its harvest.
A farmer carries wheat harvested on the outskirts of Jammu, India, on April 28. India announced it would ban exports of wheat after a heatwave hurt its output. (Channi Anand/The Associated Press)
“The more overreaction there is and the more uncoordinated reaction there is [to Ukraine’s grain situation], the higher the price spike is likely to be,” said Sophia Murphy, a Canadian food policy expert and executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minnesota.
Even if Russia agrees to release the grain from portside silos, there are major concerns for future harvests from the country known as the “breadbasket of Europe.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts this year’s wheat harvest in Ukraine will be down 35 per cent from last year due to the war. Farmers are also struggling to access seeds for next year’s crop, as well as fuel to run machinery – meaning countries hungry for Ukraine’s grain will face a tight supply for some time to come.
“That’s extremely worrying to me that future agricultural activity will not be able to grow, the agricultural activity won’t be able to continue, and exports won’t start … because of the effect of the war,” Welsh said.
Ortega adds that any international discussions should ensure aid for countries that rely on Ukrainian exports because, “they’re the ones that are being the hardest hit.”
Will Russia agree to an export deal?
Guterres said Thursday that he is still trying to broker a “package deal” that would allow the movement of Ukraine’s exports, as well as allowing Russian food and fertilizer exports to reach global markets.
Government officials and Ukrainian soldiers inspect a grain warehouse shelled by Russian forces near Kherson Oblast in Novovorontsovka, Ukraine, on May 6. (John Moore/Getty Images)
It’s unclear whether Russia will agree to the proposals, or what other conditions it might demand.
“Russia can make it more or less easy to access the ports [but] Russia is really not interested in stabilizing world food prices, and it clearly has agency here,” Murphy said.
“I’m not sure that the U.S. and Canada and even the UN have much influence over what Putin will decide to do.”
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