Ukrainian Grain Blocked by Russia, Impacting Global Supply

Global Food Crisis: How Russia's War in Ukraine is Starving the World

by Faruk Imamovic
Ukrainian Grain Blocked by Russia, Impacting Global Supply
© Getty Images/Chris McGrath

In Istanbul, ships loaded with Ukrainian wheat are stuck in the Bosporus, awaiting inspections. This bottleneck highlights the impact of Russia's war in Ukraine, which began ten months ago with a naval blockade, drastically reducing the number of ships passing through this key strait. Ukraine and Russia, once responsible for a quarter of the world's wheat exports, are now struggling to maintain grain shipments amidst the conflict.

Periodic missile and drone attacks by Russia on Ukraine's energy grid further cripple the few operational ports, exacerbating a global food crisis. This crisis has led to widespread starvation, poverty, and premature deaths, with deepening shortages worsened by droughts in the Horn of Africa and other severe weather patterns.

Global Response and Challenges

The United States and allies are working to help Ukrainian farmers export food via rail, road networks to Eastern Europe, and barges on the Danube River. However, the crisis intensifies as winter sets in and Russia's attacks on infrastructure continue. The United Nations World Food Program estimates over 345 million people are facing or at risk of acute food insecurity, a dramatic increase from 2019.

“We’re dealing now with a massive food insecurity crisis,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The crisis is driven largely by Russia's aggression against Ukraine, causing food shortages and high prices worldwide. Countries like Afghanistan and Yemen are particularly hard-hit, struggling with debt and surging costs. Even in wealthy nations, inflation driven by the war has left many without enough to eat.

Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), noted, “By attacking Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world, Putin is attacking the world’s poor, spiking global hunger when people are already on the brink of famine.”

Grain Harvest In Ukraine
Grain Harvest In Ukraine© Getty Images/Alexey Furman

Policy Shifts and Historical Parallels

Ukraine’s situation draws parallels to the Holodomor, a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine 90 years ago. In a significant policy shift, the U.S. government announced blanket exceptions to economic sanctions to ensure continuous food aid. The United Nations Security Council adopted a similar resolution, aiming to prevent aid from being withheld due to legal concerns.

Russia's disruption of global food supplies has included restricting its own exports, crucially fertilizers, further increasing global costs. Before the war, Russia was the largest fertilizer exporter, essential for agriculture worldwide.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative

From March to November, Ukraine exported an average of 3.5 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds per month, down from 5 to 7 million metric tons pre-war. The Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement forged in July, allowed exports from three Ukrainian ports, helping mitigate the crisis. However, Russia still blocks seven of Ukraine's 13 key ports.

When Russia threatened to exit the deal in October, global food prices surged by five to six percent, according to Isobel Coleman, deputy administrator at USAID. “The effects of this war are hugely disruptive,” Coleman said. “Putin is pushing millions of people into poverty.”

Ukrainian Farmers and Global Impact

The war has severely damaged Ukraine's agricultural infrastructure. Deliberate targeting of grain storage and wheat processing facilities by Russia has compounded the crisis. Many Ukrainian farmers have joined the military or fled, and infrastructure to process and transport wheat and sunflower oil has broken down.

At a farm south of Kyiv, 40 of 350 employees are now soldiers. Co-owner Kees Huizinga reports severe shortages and high transportation costs. Before the war, shipping costs were $23 to $24 per ton, now more than doubled. Trucking to Romania costs $85 per ton.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative offers some relief, but Russia's delays in inspections hamper operations. Each vessel leaving Ukrainian ports must be inspected by teams from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the United Nations upon reaching Istanbul, but the rate of inspections has slowed.

Hope Amidst Challenges

Despite the challenges, extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative contributed to a 2.8 percent drop in global wheat prices. However, food prices remain high compared to previous years. Fertilizer prices are soaring, leading farmers to reduce usage, which will lower crop yields and push food prices higher.

Subsistence farms, which produce nearly a third of the world's food, are hit particularly hard. The G20 leaders, at their summit in Bali, pledged to support international efforts to keep food supply chains functioning. “We need to strengthen trade cooperation, not weaken it,” emphasized Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. government continues to invest heavily in global food security, spending about $2 billion annually and running programs such as Feed the Future. Since the Ukraine war began, the U.S. has provided over $11 billion to address the food crisis, including the $100 million AGRI-Ukraine program supporting 13,000 Ukrainian farmers with financing, technology, and supplies.

These efforts aim to support both the global food crisis and Ukraine's economic recovery, as agriculture is crucial for the country's economy and labor force. "It's hugely important for Ukraine's economy and for Ukraine's economic survival," Coleman said.

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