A series of crises – the pandemic, climate change and supply chain strains – had sent food prices soaring even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February. That catastrophic and needless war, affecting one of the world's key breadbasket regions, is now sending the world into a wider food supply emergency that could threaten tens of millions of people. Warning of the urgent need to restore Ukrainian grain exports, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said this week that some of the world's most vulnerable people could tip over the edge into food insecurity, "followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years."
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. Some 36 countries count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports, including Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo. Ukraine used to export most of its goods through seaports but since the Russian invasion, it has been forced to export by train or via its small Danube River ports. The United States says that some 22 million tonnes of grain are sitting in silos in Ukraine, unable to get out of the country. To compound matters, the war has also hit fertiliser exports; Russia and Belarus between them account for more than 40 per cent of global exports of potash, a crop nutrient.
That will produce secondary effects in other breadbaskets, such as Brazil. With the exception of China, which has built up its strategic food reserves significantly since the last major global food crisis in 2007-08, most countries are unprepared for supply shortages. Egypt and Turkey rely on exports from the region for the caloric intake of their people. Egypt also processes those commodities to export to east Africa. The soaring price of wheat, 80 per cent of which is primarily used for flour, will have a particularly dismal effect. It could even take on a political dimension; bread prices have in the past been a factor in driving social unrest in developing countries.
The importance of long-term food security strategies is clearer than ever, but in the short-term it is also essential that Ukrainian ports be reopened and food exports be allowed to resume. The West accuses Russia of deliberately provoking shortages to try to weaken the international alliance standing with Ukraine, saying Moscow has targeted transport routes and grain storage facilities. "It's not collateral damage, it's a perfectly deliberate instrument in a hybrid war that is currently being waged," German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said. Russia must be compelled to create corridors so that food and other vital supplies can safely leave Ukraine by land or sea.