Together, Russia and Ukraine export nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley, over 70% of sunflower oil, and are major suppliers of corn. Russia is the largest producer of fertilizer in the world.
World food prices were already on the rise, and the war made matters worse, blocking some 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from reaching the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia.
Weeks of negotiations on secure corridors to get grain out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have made little progress, and the urgency is mounting as the summer harvest season approaches.
“This has to happen in the next few months (or) it’s going to be horrible,” said Anna Nagurney, who studies crisis management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a board member of the Kyiv School of Economics.
She says 400 million people worldwide depend on Ukrainian food supplies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or increased famine this year.
Here’s a look at the global food crisis:
What is the situation?
Normally, 90% of wheat and other grain from Ukraine’s fields is shipped to world markets by sea, but is held back by Russian blockades on the Black Sea coast.
Some grain is being diverted through Europe by rail, road and river, but the amount is a drop in the ocean compared to the sea routes. The shipments are also supported because Ukraine’s track gauges do not match those of its neighbors to the west.
Ukraine’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Markian Dmytrasevych asked European Union lawmakers for help in exporting more grain, including expanding the use of a Romanian port on the Black Sea, building more freight terminals on the Danube and the reducing bureaucracy for freight crossings at the Polish border.
But that means food is even further away from those who need it.
“Now you have to go all the way through Europe to get back to the Mediterranean. It’s really cost an incredible amount for Ukrainian grain,” said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
Ukraine has been able to export only 1.5 million to 2 million tons of grain a month since the war, a drop of more than 6 million tons, said Glauber, a former chief economist at the US Department of Agriculture.
Russian grain doesn’t come out either. Moscow argues that Western sanctions against its banking and shipping industries make it impossible for Russia to export food and fertilizers and deter foreign shipping companies from transporting it. Russian officials are pushing for sanctions to be lifted to get grain onto the world market.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der However, Leyen and other Western leaders say sanctions have nothing to do with food.
What do the parties say?
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 by Maxar Technologies in late May show Russian-flagged ships being loaded with grain in a Crimean port in Crimea and docked in Syria with their hatches open days later.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia has created a global food crisis. The West agrees, with officials like European Council President Charles Michel and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying Russia is using food as a weapon.
Russia says exports can resume once Ukraine has cleared mines in the Black Sea and arriving ships can be checked for weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised that Moscow would not “misuse” its naval advantage and would “take all necessary measures to ensure that the ships can leave there freely”.
Ukrainian and Western officials question the promise. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week it is possible to create safe corridors without the need to clear naval mines because the location of the explosives is known.
But other questions would remain, such as whether insurers would cover ships.
Dmytrasevych told EU agriculture ministers this week that the only solution is to defeat Russia and unblock ports: “No other temporary measures, such as humanitarian corridors, will tackle the problem.”
How did we get here?
Food prices rose before the invasion, due to factors such as inclement weather and poor harvests, which reduced inventories, while global demand recovered strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Glauber cited poor wheat crops last year in the United States and Canada and a drought that hurt soybean yields in Brazil. The Horn of Africa is also being exacerbated by climate change and 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 rising fuel and fertilizer costs, has prevented other major grain-producing countries from filling the gaps.
Who will be hit the hardest?
Ukraine and Russia mainly export commodities to developing countries that are most vulnerable to cost increases and shortages.
Countries such as Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan are heavily dependent on wheat, maize and sunflower oil from the two warring countries.
“The burden is borne by the very poor,” Glauber said. “That’s a humanitarian crisis, no doubt about it.”
In addition to the threat of hunger, rising food prices can also lead to political instability in such countries. They were one of the causes of the Arab Spring and there are concerns about a repeat.
Developing country governments should either allow food prices to rise or subsidize costs, Glauber said. A moderately wealthy country like Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, can afford to absorb higher food costs, he said.
“For poor countries like Yemen or countries in the Horn of Africa, they will really need humanitarian aid,” he said.
Famine and famine are stalking that part of Africa. Prices for commodities such as wheat and cooking oil have more than doubled in some cases, while millions of animals used by families for milk and meat have died. In Sudan and Yemen, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine came on top of years of domestic crises.
UNICEF warned of an “explosion of child deaths” if the world only focuses on the war in Ukraine and does nothing. UN agencies estimate that more than 200,000 people in Somalia are experiencing “catastrophic hunger and starvation”, about 18 million Sudanese could suffer acute hunger in September and 19 million Yemenis will face food insecurity this year.
Wheat prices have risen by as much as 750% in some of those countries.
“In general, everything has become expensive. Whether it’s water or food, it becomes almost impossible,” said Justus Liku, a food security adviser with the aid group CARE, after a recent visit to Somalia.
Liku said a vendor selling cooked food “had no vegetables or animal products. No milk, no meat. The shopkeeper told us she’s just there to be there.”
In Lebanon, bakeries that used to have many types of flat bread now only sell standard white pita bread to save flour.
What is being done?
For weeks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been trying to negotiate an agreement to unblock Russian grain and fertilizer exports and allow Ukraine to ship goods from Odessa’s main port. But progress is slow.
Meanwhile, a huge amount of grain is trapped in Ukrainian silos or on farms. And there’s more to come – Ukraine’s winter wheat harvest is about to get underway, putting more pressure on storage facilities, even though some fields are likely to go unharvested and due to the fighting.
Serhiy Hrebtsov cannot sell the grain mountain on his farm in the Donbas region because transport connections have been cut. Due to scarce buyers, prices are so low that agriculture is unsustainable.
“There are some options to sell, but it’s like just throwing it away,” he said.
US President Joe Biden says he is working with European partners on a plan to build temporary silos on the borders of Ukraine, including with Poland, a solution that would also address the different track gauges between Ukraine and Europe.
The idea is that grain can be transferred to the silos and then “into cars in Europe and take it to the ocean and take it across the world. But it takes time,” he said in a speech on Tuesday.
Dmytrasevych said Ukraine’s grain storage capacity has been reduced by 15 million to 60 million tons after Russian forces destroyed silos or occupied territories in the south and east.
What costs more?
World production of wheat, rice and other grains is expected to reach 2.78 billion tons by 2022, 16 million tons less than the year before — the first decline in four years, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
According to the FAO’s wheat price index, wheat prices have increased by 45% in the first three months of the year compared to the previous year. Vegetable oil is up 41%, while sugar, meat, milk and fish prices are also up double digits.
The increases are accelerating inflation globally, making groceries more expensive and increasing costs for restaurant owners, who are forced to raise prices.
Some countries are responding by trying to protect domestic supplies. India has curbed sugar and wheat exports, while Malaysia has halted live chicken exports, alarming Singapore, which gets a third of its poultry from its neighboring country.
The International Food Policy Research Institute says that if food shortages become more acute as the war continues, it could lead to more export restrictions, pushing prices up further.
Another threat is scarce and expensive fertilizer, which means fields could be less productive if farmers skimp, said Steve Mathews of Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data and analytics firm.
There are especially major shortcomings of two of the main chemicals in fertilizers, of which Russia is a major supplier.
“If we continue to have the potassium and phosphate deficiency that we have now, we will see declining yields,” Mathews said. “No doubt about the coming years.”