opinion | Reduced grain shipments from Russia and Ukraine are creating global food shortages

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“When war is waged, people go hungry,” UN Secretary General António Guterres warned last month. That’s precisely what’s starting to happen as the war in Ukraine ravages the world’s food supplies.

Global food shortages are a largely invisible consequence of the Ukraine war, whose combatants happen to be two of the world’s largest grain exporters. The ripple effect in global markets is just beginning. But a senior White House official warns that unless steps are taken quickly, the war could trigger “a potential mass starvation event.”

The numbers are frightening. Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, estimates that the conflict has blocked export of 30 percent of the world’s wheat and barley. The Center for Global Development predicts that price spikes for food and energy will push 40 million people into extreme poverty and food insecurity. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that global food prices are 30 percent higher than a year ago.

The world’s food supply “has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations last month. He described Ukrainian farmers attempting to harvest their crops wearing helmets and bulletproof vests.

President Biden this week denounced a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports that keeps 20 million tons of grain locked in silos. “It can’t get out through the Black Sea because it’ll get blown out of the water,” he told a labor convention in Philadelphia. For countries such as Egypt, which used to buy up to 80 percent of its wheat from Ukraine, this cutoff is a disaster.

This grim side effect of the war is finally getting some urgent attention. Biden this week announced a plan to build temporary silos on Ukraine’s land borders so that more grain can be exported overland. Blinken travels to Germany next week for a meeting with allies to discuss emergency measures to combat food shortages. “Everywhere we go, every country we talk to is preoccupied by this challenge,” says State Department spokesman Ned Price.

The war transformed Ukraine from a breadbasket into a free-fire zone. Ukraine normally exports 5 million to 6 million tons of grain per month, according to a State Department official. In March, that collapsed to 200,000 tons, and in April it was just 600,000 tons. Exports bounced back in May to 2 million tons, said the State Department official. And he hopes that by using land routes, Ukraine can export 3 million to 4 million tons a month through next April — but that’s only a little more than half of what it used to sell.

Shortages have brought sharp spikes in prices. A USAID official said Thursday that the agency is paying 10 to 20 percent more for commodities than before the war. The World Food Program’s operational costs have increased $29 million a month, the official said. Prices for fertilizers have doubled over the past year, according to World Bank figures cited by the USAID official.

In poor countries, more people are going hungry. A USAID project called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network cites 10 countries that will experience significant food problems because of the Ukraine conflict, including Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen, which were already ravaged by their own internal conflicts.

Guterres has been working for weeks to try to lift the Black Sea embargo, in a deal that would facilitate Russia’s exports of food and fertilizer, as well as Ukraine’s. He has been negotiating quietly with Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, and he hopes to hold a meeting next week in Turkey with three countries to discuss plans for reopening the Black Sea to commerce, including escorts for cargo vessels.

This UN Black Sea discussion has been one of the few mediation channels that remain open. State Department officials support Guterres’ effort, and they hope that if next week’s discussions go well, Ukraine might begin shipping 2 million to 4 million tons of grain by sea every month. Russian President Vladimir Putin “is weaponizing hunger, willfully taking tens of millions of tons of food off the market when millions of lives in Africa and beyond hang in the balance,” Power said in an email.

The Ukraine war is taking place within that country’s borders. But increasingly, the consequences are being felt around the globe. Stopping the war may be impossible, but there’s an urgent need to end a cruel Black Sea blockade that is starving the world’s poorest people.

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