Calls for Russia to unblock Ukrainian ports to avoid ‘catastrophic’ hunger crisis

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Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven Countries called on Russia to clear sea export routes for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products essential to feeding the world as food prices rise and the World Food Program warns of “catastrophic” consequences if Ukrainian ports remain blocked.

“We should not be naive. Russia has now extended the war against Ukraine to many states as a grain war,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a news conference Saturday after the G-7 meetings. “It’s not collateral damage, it’s a tool in a hybrid war designed to weaken cohesion against the Russian war.”

Baerbock, who hosted the three-day meeting of top diplomats in Weissenhaus, Germany, said the group was looking for alternative routes to transport grain from Ukraine as the threat of a global hunger crisis mounts.

According to the Associated Press, up to 50 million people will go hungry in the coming months unless Ukrainian grain is released. About 28 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports blocked by Russian troops.

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, some countries have looked to India as an alternative grain source. But after taking steps to expand its agricultural export industry, India banned wheat exports on Friday, citing its own food security concerns.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has nearly taken the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have surrounded the last remaining Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel mill.

Russia has also taken control of the Kherson region on the Black Sea and fired missiles at the major port city of Odessa, which remains under Ukrainian control. Ukraine closed its ports amid the fighting in late February, and Russian warships and floating mines have prevented them from reopening.

Ukrainian wheat crop, which feeds the world, cannot leave the country

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that such a cessation of port activities is unlikely to have been seen in Ukraine since World War II. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that Ukraine was willing to participate in talks with Russia to unblock grain stocks, but his government had received “no positive feedback” from officials in Moscow, the AP reported.

David Beasley, head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, spoke to US lawmakers and Biden government officials in Washington this week to emphasize the urgency of reopening ports and tackling the global food crisis.

Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people annually, and according to the World Food Programme, 30 percent of the world’s wheat supplies come from Russia and Ukraine.

“The ports are critical to global food security,” Beasley told The Washington Post. “It will be catastrophic if we don’t open those ports and move food supplies around the world.”

On an average working day about 3,000 train wagons of grain arrive at Ukrainian ports, where they are stored in silos and shipped in peacetime across the Black Sea and across the Bosphorus and then around the world, Beasley said. With exports blocked, the silos are full, meaning there is no place to store grain from the next harvest, which will take place in July and August.

The impact of the blockade will be felt in rich and poor countries alike, Beasley said, and it is already impacting market volatility. The war has pushed the prices of wheat, cooking oil and other commodities to record highs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that global wheat stocks would fall next crop year.

Countries in the Middle East and Africa are especially dependent on Ukrainian grain. According to UN statistics, Egypt gets between 75 and 85 percent of its wheat supplies from Ukraine and Russia. More than 60 percent of the wheat imported by Lebanon comes from Ukraine. Somalia and Benin depend on Russia and Ukraine for all their wheat imports.

The UN has warned that food insecurity could exacerbate existing conflicts and economic crises in these regions.

Tunisia one of the countries experiencing major economic consequences from the war in Ukraine

Operating costs for the World Food Program to help the same number of people have increased by more than $70 million a month, in part due to rising food prices, Beasley said. The program, which provides food aid to 125 million people every day, will have to further reduce rations. In Yemen, which has been experiencing an acute hunger crisis for years, the program has already halved the food rations of 8 million people.

“We are running out of money, the prices are deadly, we are short of billions and we now have to decide which children eat, which children do not eat, which children live and which children die. It’s not right,” Beasley said.

The World Food Program, which buys half of its wheat from Ukraine, has asked Congress for $5 billion in additional international food aid. An emergency financing package for Ukraine that includes that aid passed the House Tuesday night, but a vote in the Senate was postponed until next week.

Russia stepped up missile strikes on Odessa this week, raising new concerns over port security. In a statement on Saturday, G-7 foreign ministers called on Russia to “immediately cease its attacks on key transport infrastructure in Ukraine, including ports.”

Beasley, who visited Odessa this month when the city was attacked, said it was encouraging that Russian attacks so far have not targeted the actual port infrastructure there.

Russia, also a major grain producer and the world’s largest wheat exporter, benefits from continuing to disrupt Ukrainian exports. G-7 ministers promised on Saturday that sanctions against Russia “will not target essential exports of food and agricultural inputs to developing countries”.

The G-7 consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The countries also pledged to increase their contributions to the World Food Program and other aid agencies.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of deliberately attacking Ukrainian grain facilities and stealing grain from occupied territories for export. A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed to The Post that Russian attacks had damaged at least six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Beasley said he is calling “every friend I know who has any influence over Russia” to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to resume grain shipments from Ukraine.

G-7 ministers said on Saturday they were looking at other options to bring Ukrainian grain to countries in need, including setting up “agricultural solidarity strips”. The European Commission on Thursday drafted a plan to create such transport corridors, which would facilitate ground transports of Ukrainian grain to Europe.

Trucks and trains can carry only a fraction of the grain normally shipped from Ukraine’s ports, Beasley said. And Russia continues to attack rail lines and transportation infrastructure across Ukraine. But Baerbock said on Saturday: that “every ton we can get out of it will help a little bit to face this hunger crisis,” the Financial Times reported.

“In the situation we are in, every week counts,” Baerbock said.

Victoria Bisset and John Hudson contributed to this report.

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