ISTANBUL — Huge ships carrying Ukrainian wheat and other grains are stuck along the Bosphorus here in Istanbul awaiting inspections before moving on to ports around the world.
The number of ships sailing through this narrow strait, which connects Black Sea ports to wider waters, plummeted when Russia invaded Ukraine 10 months ago and imposed a naval blockade. Under diplomatic pressure, Moscow has begun allowing some ships through but continues to restrict most shipments from Ukraine, which along with Russia once exported a quarter of the world’s wheat.
And in the few Ukrainian ports that are operational, Russian missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s power grid regularly paralyze grain terminals where wheat and corn are loaded onto ships.
A long-lasting global food crisis has become one of the most far-reaching consequences of Russia’s war, contributing to widespread famine, poverty and premature deaths.
The United States and its allies are fighting to reduce the damage. US officials are mounting efforts to help Ukrainian farmers get food out of their country via rail and road networks connecting to Eastern Europe and by barges traveling up the Danube River.
But as winter approaches and Russia attacks Ukraine’s infrastructure, the crisis worsens. Food shortages are already being exacerbated by a drought in the Horn of Africa and unusually harsh weather in other parts of the world.
The United Nations World Food Program estimates that more than 345 million people experience or are at risk of acute food insecurity, more than double the number in 2019.
“We are now dealing with a massive food insecurity crisis,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month at a summit with African leaders in Washington. “It is the product of many things, as we all know,” he said, “including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”
Food shortages and high prices are causing intense pain in Africa, Asia and the Americas. US officials are especially concerned about Afghanistan and Yemen, which have been devastated by war. Egypt, Lebanon and other major food-importing nations are struggling to pay their debts and other expenses because costs have skyrocketed. Even in wealthy countries like the United States and Britain, skyrocketing inflation fueled in part by war disruptions has left the poorest people without enough to eat.
“By attacking Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world, Putin is attacking the world’s poor, increasing world hunger when people are already on the brink of starvation,” said Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for Development. International, or USAID.
Ukrainians are comparing the events to the Holodomor, when Josef Stalin engineered a famine in Soviet-ruled Ukraine 90 years ago that killed millions.
Blinken announced on December 20 that the US government would begin granting blanket exceptions to its economic sanctions programs around the world to ensure that food aid and other assistance kept flowing. The action is aimed at ensuring that companies and organizations do not withhold assistance for fear of running afoul of US sanctions.
State Department officials said it was the most significant change in US sanctions policy in years. The UN Security Council adopted a similar resolution on sanctions last month.
But Russia’s intentional disruption of the world’s food supply poses an entirely different problem.
Moscow has restricted its own exports, raising costs elsewhere. More importantly, it has halted sales of fertilizers, which are needed by the world’s farmers. Before the war, Russia was the largest exporter of fertilizers.
Its hostilities in Ukraine have also had a great impact. From March to November, Ukraine exported an average of 3.5 million metric tons of grains and oilseeds per month, a sharp drop from the 5 million to 7 million metric tons per month it exported before the war began in February. , according to country data. Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food.
That number would be less if it weren’t for a deal forged in July by the United Nations, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, in which Russia agreed to allow exports from three Ukrainian seaports.
Russia continues to block seven of the 13 ports used by Ukraine. (Ukraine has 18 ports, but five are in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.) In addition to the three on the Black Sea, three on the Danube are operational.
The initial deal was for just four months, but it was extended in November for another four months. When Russia threatened to quit in October, world food prices rose 5-6%, said Isobel Coleman, USAID assistant administrator.
“The effects of this war are enormously disturbing,” he said. “Putin is pushing millions of people into poverty.”
While food price increases last year were particularly pronounced in the Middle East, North Africa and South America, no region has been immune.
“You are seeing price increases of everything from 60% in the US to 1,900% in Sudan,” said Sara Menker, chief executive of Gro Intelligence, a weather and agriculture data platform that tracks prices. of food.
Before the war, food prices had risen to their highest levels in more than a decade due to pandemic disruptions to the supply chain and widespread drought.
The United States, Brazil and Argentina, key grain producers for the world, have experienced three consecutive years of drought. The level of the Mississippi River fell so much that the barges that transport American grain to the ports were temporarily grounded.
The weakening of many foreign currencies against the US dollar has also forced some countries to buy less food on the international market than in previous years.
“There were a lot of structural problems, and then the war made it much worse,” Menker said.
US officials say the Russian military has deliberately attacked grain storage facilities in Ukraine, a possible war crime, and destroyed wheat processing plants.
Many Ukrainian farmers have gone to war or fled their land, and the infrastructure that processed and transported wheat and sunflower oil to foreign markets has collapsed.
On a farm 300 kilometers south of Kyiv, 40 of the 350 employees have joined the army. And the farm is struggling with other shortcomings. Kees Huizinga, the Dutch co-owner, said Russia’s attacks on the power grid have led to the closure of a plant that supplies nitrogen fertilizer to his farm and others.
Other fertilizer plants in Europe were forced to close or cut production last year as natural gas prices soared as a result of the war. Natural gas is essential for the production of fertilizers.
“So this year’s crop is already down,” Huizinga said in November. “And if the Russians continue like this, next year’s crop could be even worse.”
He added that transportation costs have risen sharply for farmers in Ukraine.
Before the war, farmers shipped 95% of the country’s wheat and grain exports through the Black Sea. Huizinga’s farm paid between $23 and $24 per ton to transport their products to ports and ships. Now the cost has more than doubled, he said. And an alternative route, by truck to Romania, costs $85 per ton.
Huizinga said Russia’s commitment to Black Sea shipments has helped, but he suspects Moscow is hampering operations by delaying inspections.
Under the agreement, every ship leaving one of Ukraine’s three Black Sea ports must be inspected by joint teams of Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and UN employees once the ship arrives in Istanbul.
The teams search for unauthorized cargo or crew members, and ships heading to Ukraine must be empty, said Ismini Palla, a spokesman for the UN office that oversees the programme.
UN data shows that the rate of inspections has decreased in recent weeks. The parties agreed to deploy three teams each day, Palla said, adding that the United Nations has requested more.
“We hope that this will change soon, so that Ukrainian ports can again operate at higher capacity,” he said. “Ukrainian exports remain a vital element in the fight against global food insecurity.”
Palla said the parties’ decision in November to extend the deal contributed to a 2.8% drop in world wheat prices.
Over the past six months, food prices have receded from spring highs, according to an index compiled by the United Nations. But they are still much higher than in previous years.
One uncertainty for farmers this winter is the skyrocketing price of fertilizers, one of their biggest costs.
Farmers have passed on the higher cost by increasing the price of food products. And many farmers are using less fertilizer on their fields. That will result in lower crop yields in the coming seasons, driving food prices higher.
Subsistence farms, which produce nearly a third of the world’s food, are being hit hardest, Coleman said.
In a statement issued at the end of their meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November, leaders of the Group of 20 top rich and developing nations said they were deeply concerned about challenges to global food security and pledged to support efforts. international organizations to keep food supply chains functioning.
“We need to strengthen trade cooperation, not weaken it,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, told the summit.
The US government spends about $2 billion per year on global food security, and started a program called Feed the Future after the last major food crisis, in 2010, now spanning 20 countries.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the United States has provided more than $11 billion to address the food crisis. That includes a $100 million program called AGRI-Ukraine, which has helped some 13,000 farmers in Ukraine, 27% of the total, gain access to financing, technology, transportation, seeds, fertilizers, bags and mobile storage units, he said. Coleman.
The efforts could help rebuild the country while easing the global food crisis: a fifth of Ukraine’s economy is in the agricultural sector and a fifth of the country’s workforce is connected to it.
“It is very important for the economy of Ukraine,” he said, “and for the economic survival of Ukraine.”
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