Due to the Russian Navy’s blockade of access to Ukrainian ports for more than four months, the world is on the verge of a food crisis. It can lead to starvation in many low-income countries and significant increases in food prices worldwide.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Layen and other world leaders, by blocking the sea corridor to Ukrainian ports, the Kremlin is openly blackmailing the world with grain shortages, using starvation as a weapon.
Such actions by Russia will affect countries in Africa and the Middle East in the first place — some of them are already experiencing the blackmail of Vladimir Putin as a significant increase in the price of bread. In the next few months, the crisis will hit Europe as well. Rising food prices worldwide could lead to migration and, as a result, a political crisis.
How and why did the world become on the verge of a food crisis?
Ukraine consistently ranks among the world’s three largest suppliers of grain and oilseeds. For example, the share of Ukrainian corn on the world market reaches 15%, the percentage of wheat — is 12%, and the share of oil — is almost 50%.
According to the 2020-2021 marketing year results, the total export of Ukrainian grain amounted to 44.72 million tons, including 16.64 million tons of wheat, 4.23 million tons of barley, and 18.4 thousand tons of rye, 23.08 million tons of corn. In the 2019-2020 marketing year, a record for grain exports was 57.2 million tons, making Ukraine the second largest grain supplier after the United States.
According to the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, 22 million tons of grain from last year’s harvest were blocked in Ukrainian ports as of May. About half of it was meant to be transferred to the United Nations World Food Program. This organization provides humanitarian assistance to more than 90 million people who cannot provide food for themselves and their families.
Considering the data of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food, in the first month of the war, March, only 200,000 tons of grain were exported. This amount rose to 900,000 in April and May to 1.7 million tons. To compare: before the war, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of food per month through seaports alone. Although Ukraine manages to increase the volume of grain going abroad, it does not seem possible to export the entire volume stored in Ukraine under the current conditions.
The main obstacle to exporting by land the volume of grain that was shipped by sea before the war lies in the low capacity of border checkpoints and the lack of the necessary logistics infrastructure. Unlike the EU countries, where the track gauge is 1,435 mm, Ukraine, like the other former Soviet republics, has a gauge of 1,520 mm. This significantly slows down grain export abroad: cars must be reloaded or transferred to another pair of wheels. That’s taking a while.
The blockade of Ukrainian seaports is not only Russia’s action aimed at causing global famine. In addition to stealing several hundred thousand tons of grain in the occupied territories, the Russian army systematically and purposefully destroyed agricultural infrastructure in Ukraine – granaries, elevators, grain dryers and food warehouses. In March alone, the Russians destroyed at least six granaries and several food depots and loaded ships. In the first days of May, an elevator in Rubizhne and granaries in the Synelnykivskyi district of the Dnipro region were destroyed. On June 5, the Russians destroyed the second largest grain terminal in Ukraine in the Mykolaiv area.
Besides this, in May-June, the Russians launched at least four series of missile strikes on the bridge across the Dniester estuary, thus blocking the shortest route to the Danube ports of Izmail and Reni, as well as to the nearest unblocked Black Sea port in Constanta, Romania, via which since the beginning of the war more than 1 million tons of grain were exported.
The situation with the export of Ukrainian food abroad is likely to be complicated at the end of the summer when the new harvest begins. As a result, the volume of grain for export will increase. Recently, Dan Dolgin, director of grain operations at the port of Constanta, suggested that all port operators will switch to Romanian grain during the harvest season in Romania. Hence the pace of Ukrainian grain exports will slow down.
Therefore, if the Russian blockade of the Black Sea continues, the grain of the new harvest also risks lingering in Ukraine, and the global crisis will last at least until next year.
The migration wave, the rise in the price of bread: what does the food crisis threaten Europe with?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), grain prices rose by 29.7% annually. Wheat showed the most significant growth – 56.2%. Food prices in Africa and the Middle East in low- and middle-income countries have risen by 20-50% this year. For example, in Lebanon, which buys about 60% of wheat in Ukraine, bread prices have increased by 70%. The situation is similar in Egypt, where 80% depends on Ukraine for grain supplies.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken assumes that shortly, the number of people experiencing food shortages may increase from the current 160 million to another 40-50 million. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres makes a similar forecast: the number of people suffering from severe food shortages could rise to 276 million, and the number of people living on the brink of starvation will exceed half a million.
The global food crisis will inevitably be felt in Europe, where food prices may rise significantly not only due to a shortage of grain but also due to a considerable increase in fuel cost, making logistics more expensive.
Polish President Andrzej Duda predicts that EU countries should prepare for a new migration crisis due to mass starvation. People who do not have access to food will seek salvation in the first place where they believe there are no problems with supply – in Europe.
After all, Europeans may also be hit in their pockets due to rising food prices; countries will be forced to allocate funds to vulnerable social groups, which will worsen the overall financial situation of EU citizens. This could lead to a political crisis.
Is there an alternative to unblocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports?
The only acceptable way out of this situation is to unblock the sea corridor to Ukrainian ports. However, according to Peter Adams, a special maritime security adviser to the International Maritime Organization, even if a political decision is made to demine docks and the surrounding area, cargo ships will not be able to leave and enter terminals right away. Complete disposal of sea mines in port areas will take several months.
Volodymyr Zelensky claims that the Ukrainian side is ready to do everything possible to resume grain supplies by sea. Still, the Russian Federation must first lift the blockade, namely the Russian Navy.
However, the Russians are not willing to open a free sea corridor from Ukrainian ports for grain exports and are trying to bargain for some preferences. If not for themselves, then for “fraternal” and subsidized Belarus.
In early June, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin said there was another way to export Ukrainian grain — through Belarus and the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. However, the recently self-proclaimed President of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has set a condition: to open transit, the European Union needs to take off sanctions on exporting potash fertilizers to Belarusian producers. The expected profit from fertilizer exports of more than $ 5 billion will save the country’s economy and significantly reduce the effects of Western sanctions.
Thus, the Putin-Lukashenka proposal is nothing but proof that the Kremlin is using the danger of global hunger as a weapon and blackmailing the whole world, from Africa to Europe.
Thus, unblocking Ukrainian seaports for grain exports is a non-alternative way to prevent a global food crisis. This requires only one thing – the decision of the Russian leadership. And Europe must play a vital role in this: to promise new sanctions packages, to increase pressure on Russia, or even to help Ukraine unblock ports by military means. After all, European leaders will no longer be able to limit themselves to noble statements.