Food & Drink

Breaking Russian Blockade Of Ukraine’s Ports Would Feed Starving Millions, But Kremlin Wants Sanctions Eased

More than 44 million people in 38 countries facing a hunger crisis have been prevented from receiving life-saving shipments of Ukrainian grain by a Russian naval blockade, and now they’ve become a bargaining chip in an unprovoked war that’s contributed to food insecurity worldwide.

Russia is now pushing for the lifting of some international sanctions in return for the creation of a safe shipping corridor that would help get grain and other food like cooking oils to where it’s needed most — 10 countries mostly in the Middle East and Northern Africa that are facing the risk of starvation. Ukraine provides food for 400 million people globally.

Timing is critical. In East Africa, one person is likely dying from acute hunger every 48 seconds, according to a report released this month by Oxfam. Starting in July, funding will decrease for the United Nations World Food Programme in civil-war-ravaged Yemen, for example, where more than 20 million people receive WFP help and worsening famine-like conditions for millions are spreading. Compounding the impact, food prices have risen about 30%.

“We are out of resources really,” said Richard Ragan, the WFP’s country director for Yemen, which in 2020 imported 710,000 tons of wheat from Ukraine and 800,000 tons from Russia. “There’s a lot more problems to address and less resources to do it with.”

Some of the countries most affected — Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — are already experiencing widespread food insecurity.

According to the WFP, if ports stay blocked for key suppliers to the global wheat market, prices will push up even higher, “worsening hunger for the most vulnerable people around the world.”

Russia wants the U.S. and its allies to ease economic sanctions in return for opening ports in Ukraine, including Odessa on the Black Sea and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, to food export. The ports and surrounding cities have experienced significant destruction from Russia’s attacks.

The Black Sea blockade and the subsequent shelling has rendered ports near Odessa owned by Cargill and other big grain traders and shippers inoperable since late February.

The port of Mariupol began operating again this week, after Russian troops removed explosive mines from the area. According to reports, Russia and Ukraine both accuse the other of unleashing underwater mines in the Black Sea.

Ukraine and Russia together are responsible for exporting 30% of the world’s cereal grains and nearly 70% of sunflower oil. The region’s imports make up more than 50% of the grain of 36 countries.

The spring season in Western Ukraine got underway, while fighting in the eastern part of the country meant that little farming got done.

The upcoming wheat harvest in July will be a big test. The harvest from Russia and Ukraine was expected to contribute 57.5 million metric tons of wheat to the global wheat trade, according to the WFP. Wheat exports are now estimated to be 6.5 million metric tons lower than before the conflict, or around 3% of wheat traded globally.

Conflict drives food insecurity. Amid the compounding impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, civil war and climate change, the UN says that over the course of several years, the number of people “marching to starvation” has ballooned from 80 million to 323 million, with 49 million at risk of famine in 43 countries.

“Middle Eastern countries used to be our biggest market,” John Rich, the chairman of MHP, the largest agricultural commodities firm running in Ukraine, told Forbes.

MHP has been shipping most of its wheat, chicken and vegetable oils by truck and rail to European ports since the conflict started Feb. 24. MHP is exporting around 1,000 tons of chicken per day, approaching pre-war levels. Since April, MHP has also exported as much as 25,000 tons of vegetable oils a month. However, logistics in Ukraine are still very challenging, MHP said.

Prior to the onset of the conflict, 98% of Ukraine’s grain exports were transported via the Black Sea. According to the WFP, the prominence of these ports means that “alternative export routes have insufficient infrastructure to be a viable, sustainable alternative to work at the required scale.”

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