Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had economic repercussions around the world, and it’s creating a food shortage. Russia and Ukraine are both key agricultural suppliers, and the ongoing conflict has only served to highlight the fragility of the global food-supply chain when two major players are essentially taken off the market.
In 2021 alone, Russia and Ukraine ranked as global export leaders for barley, corn, rapeseed, sunflower seed, and sunflower oil. Together they exported almost 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply. Russia exported 17 percent of global wheat while Ukraine accounted for 20 percent of the world’s rapeseed.
However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the agricultural supply chain has broken down and is already compromising deliveries of food and food prices around the world.
Stopping The Blockades
Russia's offensive strategies include blockading and bombing ports that are vital gateways for food exports. On May 10, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced concern over the imminent food crisis and pleaded with international leaders to take immediate action to end the blockade of Ukrainian ports and thus allow Ukrainian wheat to get to other markets.
In response, G7 foreign ministers met in Germany to discuss the urgent transit of grain, stating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had "generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history,” which now jeopardizes the world’s poorest countries.
With its vital ports blocked, Ukraine has transported exports by rail over its western border, as well as from the country’s ports on the Danube River while these were still open. About 25 million tons of grain have been prevented from leaving ports in Ukraine over the past three months since the war began.
Western Sanctions And Food Shortages
Russia, meanwhile, has not paused its grain production and continues its exports via the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a meeting of economic officials in Moscow that the country was expecting a record wheat harvest this year. However, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West have logjammed logistics and payments, which has rendered many transactions difficult if not impossible.
The sanctions could also halt Russian imports of crucial items such as pesticides and seeds, which could lead to lower yields and poor-quality crops.
A global food shortage means that prices have shot up as well. Prices for every category of foodstuff had already been on the rise since late 2020, but the global cereal and vegetable oil markets – in which both Ukraine and Russia play significant roles – are among those most affected. The FAO Food Price Index recorded an all-time high in March 2022, at 159.3 points, which is up 12.6 percent from February, when it had already reached its highest level since the index was created in the 1990s.
All of this poses a threat to food security in countries that are already economically vulnerable and highly dependent on Russian wheat, such as those in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.
Alex Smith, a food and agriculture analyst with the Breakthrough Institute, said in an interview with RFE/RL that Lebanon, for example, relies on Ukraine for about 50 percent of its total wheat supply and is now facing one of the world’s worst economic crises.
African countries that were already experiencing a food crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, and landslides, are now grappling with food shortages and soaring prices.
World leaders have sharply criticized Russia’s use of grain exports in geopolitics. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on May 24 during the World Economic Forum in Davos that, on top of bombing Ukrainian grain warehouses, Moscow was storing its own food exports as a form of blackmail.
"This is using hunger and grain to wield power," she said.
In a debate at the United Nations Security Council, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), demanded that world leaders take immediate action regarding the reopening of Black Sea ports to help the 276 million people around the world who are currently at risk of starvation. He added that if measures are not taken soon, “the impact of inaction will be felt around the world for years to come.”
Ban On Exports To Central Asia
In March, Russia temporarily banned grain exports to member countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia – until June. Belarus, which is also a member of the EEU, was notably exempted from the ban.
In response, Kazakhstan banned wheat exports to its Central Asian neighbors. Kazakhstan is a sizable wheat producer but it also imports relatively affordable wheat from Russia for national consumption and to resell to other countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. These countries receive some 90 percent of their wheat imports from Kazakhstan.
Aid And Possible Solutions
On May 23, the Pentagon reported that around 20 countries had announced new security assistance packages for Ukraine. Denmark has pledged to send Harpoon launchers and anti-ship missiles to Ukraine that could help break the blockade and ensure the release of food shipments.
The EU, for its part, says that it intends to build a land corridor to Poland’s Baltic Sea ports. The plan was announced by the bloc’s agricultural commissioner, Janusz Wojciechozki, during a conference held by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization on May 10. Wojciechozki mentioned the ports of Gdansk and Gdynia as the most viable options.