Weeks of negotiations on safe corridors to get grain out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have made little progress, with urgency rising as the summer harvest season arrives.
Countries like Lebanon, Somalia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan are heavily reliant on wheat, corn and sunflower oil from Ukraine and Russia.
In Lebanon, bakeries that used to have many types of flat bread now only sell basic white pita bread to conserve flour.
Ukraine has accused Russia of shelling agricultural infrastructure, burning fields, stealing grain and trying to sell it to Syria after Lebanon and Egypt refused to buy it. Satellite images taken in late May by Maxar Technologies show Russian-flagged ships in a port in Crimea being loaded with grain and then days later docked in Syria with their hatches open.
Russia says exports can resume once Ukraine removes mines in the Black Sea and arriving ships can be checked for weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised that Moscow would not “abuse” its naval advantage and would “take all necessary steps to ensure that the ships can leave there freely.”
Ukrainian and Western officials doubt the pledge. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that it may be possible to create secure corridors without the need to clear sea mines because the location of the explosive devices are known.
But other questions would still remain, such as whether insurers would provide coverage for ships.
Dmytrasevych told the EU agriculture ministers this week that the only solution is defeating Russia and unblocking ports: “No other temporary measures, such as humanitarian corridors, will address the issue.”
WHO’S HARDEST HIT?
“The burden is being shouldered by the very poor,” Glauber said. “That’s a humanitarian crisis, no question.”
Beside the threat of hunger, spiraling food prices risk political instability in such countries. They were one of the causes of the Arab Spring, and there are worries of a repeat.
The governments of developing countries must either let food prices rise or subsidize costs, Glauber said. A moderately prosperous country like Egypt, the world’s top wheat importer, can afford to absorb higher food costs, he said.
“For poor countries like Yemen or countries in the Horn of Africa — they’re really going to need humanitarian aid,” he said.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Food prices were rising before the invasion, stemming from factors including bad weather and poor harvests cutting supplies, while global demand rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glauber cited poor wheat harvests last year in the United States and Canada and a drought that hurt soybean yields in Brazil. Also exacerbated by climate change, the Horn of Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in four decades, while a record-shattering heat wave in India in March reduced wheat yields.
That, along with soaring costs for fuel and fertilizer, has prevented other big grain-producing countries from filling in the gaps.
WHAT’S BEING DONE?
For weeks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been trying to secure an agreement to unblock Russian exports of grain and fertilizer and allow Ukraine to ship commodities from the key port of Odesa. But progress has been slow.
A vast amount of grain is stuck in Ukrainian silos or on farms in the meantime. And there’s more coming — Ukraine’s harvest of winter wheat is getting underway soon, putting more stress on storage facilities even as some fields are likely to go unharvested and because of the fighting.
Serhiy Hrebtsov can’t sell the mountain of grain at his farm in the Donbas region because transport links have been cut off. Scarce buyers mean prices are so low that farming is unsustainable.
“There are some options to sell, but it is like just throwing it away,” he said.
U.S. President Joe Biden says he’s working with European partners on a plan to build temporary silos on Ukraine’s borders, including with Poland, a solution that would also address the different rail gauges between Ukraine and Europe.
The idea is that grain can be transferred into the silos, and then “into cars in Europe and get it out to the ocean and get it across the world. But it’s taking time,” he said in a speech Tuesday.
Dmytrasevych said Ukraine’s grain storage capacity has been reduced by 15 million to 60 million tons after Russian troops destroyed silos or occupied sites in the south and east.
WHAT’S COSTING MORE?
World 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 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said.
Wheat prices are up 45% in the first three months of the year compared with the previous year, according to the FAO’s wheat price index. Vegetable oil has jumped 41%, while sugar, meat, milk and fish prices also have risen by double digits.
The increases are fueling faster inflation worldwide, making groceries more expensive and raising costs for restaurant owners, who have been forced to increase prices.
Some countries are reacting by trying to protect domestic supplies. India has restricted sugar and wheat exports, while Malaysia halted exports of live chickens, alarming Singapore, which gets a third of its poultry from its neighbor.
The International Food Policy Research Institute says if food shortages grow more acute as the war drags on, that could lead to more export restrictions that further push up prices.
Another threat is scarce and costly fertilizer, meaning fields could be less productive as farmers skimp, said Steve Mathews of Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data and analytics company.
There are especially big shortfalls of two of the main chemicals in fertilizer, of which Russia is a big supplier.
“If we continue to have the shortage of potassium and phosphate that we have right now, we will see falling yields,” Mathews said. “No question about it in the coming years.”