Russia’s war in Ukraine could plunge up to 49 million people into famine or famine-like conditions due to its devastating impact on global food supplies and prices, the United Nations said in the final warning about food insecurity.
With its fertile soil and vast agricultural lands, Ukraine has long been described as one of the breadbaskets of the world. But Russia’s unprovoked assault is now straining Ukraine’s food production and exports. The ripple effects are being felt around the world.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has already driven up global food prices and threatens to cause catastrophic food shortages in parts of the world, the UN has said.
“For people around the world, war, along with other crises, threatens to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and misery, leaving behind social and economic chaos,” the UN secretary-general said on Wednesday. , Antonio Guterres.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Russian invasion has affected Ukraine’s entire food production and supply chain: from sowing to harvesting and exporting.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that between 20% and 30% of Ukraine’s agricultural land will remain either unplanted or unharvested this year because of the war.
This is partly because large swaths of Ukrainian farmland – about half of the area planted with winter wheat and about 40% of the area planted with rye – were under Russian occupation in March, disrupting the sowing season.
But the war is also causing labor shortages, due to the large number of people who fled their homes or joined the volunteer units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
International sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine have also impacted the global supply of fuel, fertilizers and agricultural products.
Ukrainian authorities and some international officials have accused Russia of stealing grain and other basic commodities from the areas it occupies.
Denys Marchuk, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council’s Public Union, said in a statement on Wednesday that Russia had “stolen about 600,000 tons of grain” from Ukrainian farmers.
He said the grain was stolen from occupied southern Ukraine and then transported to ports in Russian-occupied Crimean territory, particularly Sevastopol, adding that it was then transported to the Middle East.
The Kremlin has denied the allegations, calling them “fake news”.
Yet on Wednesday, the head of the Moscow-backed military administration for the occupied part of Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine bragged about wagonloads of Ukrainian grain leaving the occupied town of Melitopol through Russia to Crimea.
Speaking on Solovyov live, an online video platform, Yevhen Balytskyi made it clear that his intention was to further increase such exports. “It can be predicted that in the near future these deliveries will increase by hundreds,” he said.
Satellite photos of the Crimean port of Sevastopol provided by Maxar Technologies last month appeared to show Russian ships loaded with Ukrainian grain. Another set of satellite images revealed that one of the ships arrived in the Syrian port of Latakia last month, its second voyage in four weeks.
Normally, Ukraine would export about three-quarters of the grain it produces. According to data from the European Commission, around 90% of these exports were shipped by sea from Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
Russia is currently blocking maritime access to Ukrainian-held Black Sea ports, which means that even grain that is still under Ukrainian control cannot be exported to the many countries that depend on it.
Ukraine has tried to increase rail grain exports to make up for some of the lost capacity, but this is proving difficult due to logistical issues. For example, Ukrainian trains run on slightly wider tracks than most European countries, which means grain has to be moved from one set of cars to another at the border.
Accusations that Russia is using food as a weapon of war have mounted since reports first emerged in March of the theft of grain by Russian troops.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that food is now part of the Kremlin’s “arsenal of terror”.
“This is a cold, ruthless and calculated siege by Putin against some of the world’s most vulnerable countries and people…food is now part of the Kremlin’s terrorist arsenal, and we don’t we can’t tolerate it,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers. .
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of deliberately targeting agricultural infrastructure. Vitaliy Kim, the head of the Mykolaiv regional military administration, said Ukraine’s largest grain storage facility was destroyed by Russian shelling on Sunday.
Last month, Russian troops destroyed a grain warehouse in Synelnykove, according to the head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional administration, Valentyn Reznichenko.
The idea of using food shortages to instill fear has a particularly dark connotation in Ukraine due to its deep institutional memory of a deadly 1932-33 famine.
Known as the Holodomor, or the Terrorist Famine, it was artificially engineered by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who wiped out Ukrainian peasants’ food stocks, resulting in the deaths of millions.
According to Ukrainian law, the Holodomor is considered an act of genocide, aimed at forcing Ukrainians into submission and impeding efforts to build an independent Ukrainian state. Children learn about it in school and the country comes to a standstill to observe a minute of silence on the annual Holodomor Remembrance Day. There are memorials throughout the country and a large museum dedicated to the Holodomor and its victims in Kyiv.
The crisis in Ukraine has repercussions all over the world, as Ukraine and Russia are major food exporters. World food prices have risen 17% since January, according to the FAO. Grain prices are up more than 21%.
The importance of Russia and Ukraine to the global food supply cannot be underestimated. Nearly a third of global wheat exports and 60% of global sunflower oil exports came from the two countries last year. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, out of 100 calories of food marketed around the world, 12 come from Russia and Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that millions around the world could starve to death if Russia does not allow Ukraine to export grain from its ports.
“We cannot export our wheat, corn, vegetable oil and other products which have played a stabilizing role in the world market. This means that, unfortunately, dozens of countries could face a physical shortage of food. Millions of people could starve to death if Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea continues,” he said in a taped speech at the Time 100 gala on Thursday.
A new report from the FAO and the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) released this week has warned that the war in Ukraine could plunge up to 47 million people into “acute food insecurity”, bringing the total number of people at risk of falling. in famine at 323 million.
According to FAO data, some of the world’s most vulnerable countries are among those most dependent on imports from Ukraine. Lebanon, Tunisia, Somalia and Libya all depended on Ukraine for at least half of their wheat imports. Eritrea bought 47% of its wheat imports from Ukraine and the remaining 53% from Russia.
The UN Food Insecurity Program buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year.
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International leaders are pulling the diplomatic strings as they try to nudge Moscow into a deal that would unlock exports.
UN officials have drawn up a plan to get the grain out of Ukraine’s port of Odessa through the Black Sea, with Turkey acting as the guarantor of the deal.
Turkey has said it is ready to try to broker a deal with Russia, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
Although no agreement emerged from the talks, Cavusoglu said “there could be new ground for negotiation” between Ukraine and Russia.
He said “there are several ideas” on how to establish an open corridor for grain exports from Ukraine and that a UN plan was “reasonable and can be implemented” but requires further discussion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that no deal had yet been reached on Ukrainian grain exports to Turkey or the Middle East, but work was underway.
The Kremlin has previously dismissed accusations that Russia is obstructing Ukraine’s grain export and instead blamed the West and Kyiv.
Separately, the United States is working to bring temporary storage containers for Ukrainian grain into the country, an interim measure as it seeks to ease the crisis.