Russian hostilities in Ukraine have prevented grain from leaving the “breadbasket” of the world and made food more expensive around the globe. This has led to increased hunger, shortages and political instability in the developing countries.
Russia and Ukraine together export almost a third of the world’s wheat, barley, and more than 70% of their sunflower oil. They are also major suppliers of corn. Russia is the largest global fertilizer producer.
The world was already experiencing rising food prices. The war only made matters worse by preventing 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of Asia.
Weeks of negotiations over safe routes to transport grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have not resulted in any significant progress. The urgency of the summer harvest season is increasing.
Anna Nagurney, who is a Kyiv School of Economics board member and studies crisis management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said, “This must happen within the next couple of weeks (or) it will be horrendous.”
She estimates that 400 million people around the world rely on Ukrainian food supplies. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, up to 181,000,000 people could be facing food shortages or worsening hunger in 41 countries this year.
Here’s a look into the global food crisis.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION?
Usually, 90% of the wheat and other grains from Ukraine are shipped by sea to global markets. However, they have been held up due to Russian blockades along the Black Sea coast.
Although some grain is being rerouted via Europe by rail, road, and river, it is still a small amount compared to sea routes. Because Ukraine’s rail gauges are not comparable to those of its western neighbours, the shipments are also being held up.
Markian Dmytrasevych (Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister) asked European Union lawmakers to help him export more grain. He requested that the EU expand the use of a port in Romania on the Black Sea, build more cargo terminals along the Danube River, and reduce red tape for freight crossings at the Polish border.
However, food is often even further away from those who need it.
“Now, you need to travel all the way across Europe to get back to the Mediterranean. It has really added an incredible amount of cost to Ukrainian grain,” said Joseph Glauber (senior research fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington).
Glauber, who was formerly chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stated that Ukraine has been able to export 1.5 to 2 million tons of grain per month since the war. This is down from over 6 million tons.
Russian grain isn’t going anywhere. Moscow claims that Western sanctions against Russia’s shipping and banking industries make it difficult for Russia to export food or fertilizer. They also discourage foreign shipping companies away from carrying it. Russian officials demand that sanctions be lifted in order to allow the grain to reach global markets.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and other Western leaders assert that sanctions do not affect food.
What are THE SIDES SAYING?
After Egypt and Lebanon refused to buy the grain, Ukraine accused Russia of attacking agricultural infrastructures, burning fields and stealing it. Maxar Technologies captured satellite images in May that show Russian-flagged vessels in a port of Crimea loaded with grain, and days later, docked in Syria with the hatches open.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, claims Russia has caused a global food shortage. Officials like Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Antony Blinken (Secretary of State of the United States) agree that Russia is using food as a weapon.
Russia claims that exports will resume after Ukraine has removed mines from the Black Sea. Also, arriving ships can be inspected for weapons.
Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, promised that Moscow would not “abuse its naval advantage” and would “take all necessary measures to ensure that ships can leave there without restriction.”
Officials from the West and Ukraine doubt this pledge. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated this week that it might be possible to create secure corridors, without having to clear sea mines, because the locations of explosive devices are known.
However, there are still questions such as whether insurance companies would cover ships.
This week, Dmytrasevych stated to the EU’s agriculture ministers that Russia must be defeated and ports unblocked: “No other temporary measures such as humanitarian corridors will solve the problem.”
HOW DO WE GET HERE?
Food prices rose before the invasion due to factors such as bad weather and poor harvests, but global demand rebounded strongly after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glauber mentioned poor harvests of wheat in the United States and Canada last year, as well as a drought that affected soybean yields in Brazil. Climate change is also causing drought in the Horn of Africa, which is now facing its worst drought in 40 years. In India, a record-breaking heat wave in March has reduced wheat yields.
This, combined with rising fuel and fertilizer costs, has hindered other large grain-producing countries from filling the gap.
WHO IS THE HARDEST HIT?
Russia and Ukraine mainly export staples, which are the most vulnerable to price hikes and shortages, to developing countries.
Many countries, including Somalia, Libya and Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and Lebanon, rely heavily on the wheat, sunflower oil, and corn from these warring nations.
Glauber stated that the burden is being borne by the very poor. “That’s a humanitarian crisis, no question.”
Spiralling food prices are a risk factor for political instability in these countries, as well as the danger of hunger. They were a major cause of the Arab Spring and there are concerns about a repeat.
Glauber stated that governments in developing countries should either allow food prices to rise or subsidize them. He said that Egypt, which is a moderately wealthy country and the top importer of wheat in the world, can absorb higher food prices.
He said, “For poor countries such as Yemen or countries of the Horn of Africa –they’re really going need humanitarian aid.”
This part of Africa is being threatened by starvation and famine. In some cases, prices for staples such as wheat and cooking oils have more than doubled while millions of livestock used for milk and meat are now extinct. The Russia-Ukraine conflict in Sudan and Yemen as a result of years of domestic crises.
UNICEF warned of an “explosion in child deaths” if the world continues to focus on the conflict in Ukraine. U.N. agencies have estimated that Somalia has more than 200,000 people who are vulnerable to starvation and hunger. Around 18 million Sudanese could be facing acute hunger by September, while 19 million Yemenis will face food insecurity.
In some countries, wheat prices have increased by up to 750%.
“All things have become more expensive. After visiting Somalia, Justus Liku, a food security advisor with CARE, stated that it is almost impossible to get water or food.
As stated that a vendor selling prepared food did not have any vegetables or animal products. No milk, no meat. We were told by the shopkeeper that she was just there to be there.
To conserve flour, many bakeries in Lebanon used to sell many kinds of flatbread.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General, has been trying for weeks to reach an agreement to allow Ukraine to ship its commodities from Odesa port. However, progress has been slow.
In the meantime, a lot of grain remains in silos in Ukraine or on farms. There’s more to come — Ukraine’s winter wheat harvest is underway quickly, placing more pressure on storage facilities, even though some fields are likely not to be harvested due to fighting.
Serhiy Hrebtsov cannot sell the Donbas-area grain mountain because of the disruption in transport links. Prices are so low because of scarcity that farming is no longer sustainable.
He said, “There are many options to sell but it’s like throwing it away.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said he is working with European partners to develop a plan for temporary silos at Ukraine’s borders. This would include a deal with Poland. It would also address differences in rail gauges between Europe and Ukraine.
It is hoped that grain can then be transferred to silos and then into cars in Europe, where it will be taken out to sea and transported around the globe. It takes time,” he stated in a speech on Tuesday.
Dmytrasevych stated that Ukraine’s grain storage capacity was reduced by 15 million to 60 million tons following the destruction of silos and occupation sites in the south and west.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) predicted that the world’s production of wheat, rice, and other grains will reach 2.78 billion tonnes in 2022. This is a 16 million-ton decrease from the previous year. It was the first drop in four years.
According to the FAO’s Wheat Price Index, wheat prices have risen 45% over the past year. The price of vegetable oil has increased by 41% while the prices for meat, fish, and milk have also risen by double-digits.
These increases have fueled faster inflation around the world, making groceries more costly and increasing costs for restaurant owners who are forced to raise prices.
Some countries have taken measures to safeguard their domestic supply. India has restricted the export of sugar and wheat, while Malaysia has halted live poultry exports. This alarms Singapore, which imports a third of its poultry products from Malaysia.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, if food insecurity becomes more severe as the war drags on it could result in more export restrictions which can further increase prices.
Another threat is the scarcity and high cost of fertilizer. This could lead to a reduction in productivity and a decrease in yields for farmers, according to Steve Mathews, a Gro Intelligence company that provides data and analytics on agriculture.
Two of the most important chemicals in fertilizer are particularly short of supply, and Russia is a major supplier.
Mathews stated that if we continue to suffer from the shortage of potassium or phosphate as we do right now, we will see declining yields. “There is no doubt about it in coming years.”
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