The lead story in the New York Times on May 24, 2022 had the following headline — Live Updates: World Leaders Call for Action to Free Trapped Ukrainian Food. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/24/world/russia-ukraine-war (“Russia’s blockade of seaports and attacks on grain warehouses have choked off one of the world’s breadbaskets. Western officials are accusing Russia of using food as a weapon.”). The article reviews presentations made at the World Economic Forum this week by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and UN World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley.
EC President von der Leyen’s statement at Davos is copied in part below (section dealing with food security) and includes both the EU view on the challenges being faced as well as steps the EU is taking to try to reduce the severity of the food insecurity crisis. See European Commission, Special Address by President von der Leyen at the World Economic Forum, Davos, 24 May 2022, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_22_3282.
“We are witnessing how Russia is weaponising its energy supplies. And indeed, this is having global repercussions. Unfortunately, we are seeing the same pattern emerging in food security. Ukraine is one of the world’s most fertile countries. Even its flag symbolises the most common Ukrainian landscape: a yellow field of grain under a blue sky. Now, those fields of grain have been scorched. In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin’s army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery. For some, this brought back memories from a dark past – the times of the Soviet crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s. Today, Russia’s artillery is bombarding grain warehouses in Ukraine – deliberately. And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds. The consequences of these shameful acts are there for everyone to see. Global wheat prices are skyrocketing. And it is the fragile countries and vulnerable populations that suffer most. Bread prices in Lebanon have increased by 70%, and food shipments from Odessa could not reach Somalia. And on top of this, Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail – holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support. This is: using hunger and grain to wield power.
“And again, our answer is and must be to mobilise greater collaboration and support at the European and global level. First, Europe is working hard to get grain to global markets, out of Ukraine. You must know that there are currently 20 million tons of wheat stuck in Ukraine. The usual export was 5 million tons of wheat per month. Now, it is down to 200,000 to 1 million tons. By getting it out, we can provide Ukrainians with the needed revenues, and the World Food Programme with supplies it so badly needs. To do this, we are opening solidarity lanes, we are linking Ukraine’s borders to our ports, we are financing different modes of transportation so that Ukraine’s grain can reach the most vulnerable countries in the world. Second, we are stepping up our own production to ease pressure on global food markets. And we are working with the World Food Programme so that available stocks and additional products can reach vulnerable countries at affordable prices. Global cooperation is the antidote against Russia’s blackmail.
“Third, we are supporting Africa in becoming less dependent on food imports. Only 50 years ago, Africa produced all the food it needed. For centuries, countries like Egypt were the granaries of the world. Then climate change made water scarce, and the desert swallowed hundreds of kilometres of fertile land, year after year. Today, Africa is heavily dependent on food imports, and this makes it vulnerable. Therefore, an initiative to boost Africa’s own production capacity will be critical to strengthen the continent’s resilience. The challenge is to adapt farming to a warmer and drier age. Innovative technologies will be crucial to leapfrog. Companies around the world are already testing high-tech solutions for climate-smart agriculture. For example, precision irrigation operating on power from renewable; or vertical farming; or nanotechnologies, which can cut the use of fossil fuels when producing fertilisers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
“The signs of a growing food crisis are obvious. We have to act urgently. But there are also solutions, today and on the horizon.
“This is why – again, an example of cooperation – I am working with President El-Sisi to address the repercussions of the war with an event on food security and the solutions coming from Europe and the region. It is time to end the unhealthy dependencies. It is time to create new connections. It is time to replace the old chains with new bonds. Let us overcome these huge challenges in cooperation, and that is in the Davos spirit.”
The New York Times article provides excerpts from Mr. Beasley’s comments. “’It’s a perfect storm within a perfect storm,’ said David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, a United Nations agency. ‘If we don’t get the port of Odesa open, it will compound our problems.’ Calling the situation ‘absolutely critical,’ he warned, ‘We will have famines around the world.’”
The UN World Food Programme has a press release on its webcite that addresses the food security crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. See UN World Food Programme, Failing to open Ukrainian ports means declaring war on global food security, WFP Chief warns UN Security Council, 19 May 2022, https://www.wfp.org/news/failing-open-ukrainian-ports-means-declaring-war-global-food-security-wfpchief-warns-un. The release is copied below.
“NEW YORK – The UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director, David Beasley, addressed the United Nations Security Council today on the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food security. Here are selected highlights from his remarks:
“’We truly are in an unprecedented crisis. Food pricing is our number one problem right now, as a result of all this perfect storm for 2022. But by 2023 it very well will be a food availability problem. When a country like Ukraine that grows enough food for 400 million people is out of the market, it creates market volatility, which we are now seeing
“’In 2007 and 2008, we all witnessed what happened when pricing gets out of control. There were over 40 nations with political unrest, riots and protests. We’re already seeing riots and protesting taking place as we speak. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, Peru… We’ve seen destabilizing dynamics already in the Sahel from Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad… these are only signs of things to come. And we have enough historical experience to understand the consequences when we failed to act. When a nation that is the breadbasket of the world becomes a nation with the longest bread lines of the world, we know we have a problem.
“’As the Secretary General clearly spoke, we’re now reaching about 4 million people inside Ukraine. In fact, we’re scaling up to 900,000 on cash-based transfers as we speak. That will put liquidity back into the marketplace, but that does not solve the problem outside of Ukraine. That’s why we’ve got to get these ports running. We’ve got to empty the silos so that we can help stabilize the food crisis that we’re facing around the world.
“’Truly, failure to open those ports in Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world.
“’Leaders of the world, it’s time that we do every possible thing that we can to bring the markets to stability because things will get worse, but I do have hope. We averted famine. We averted destabilization over the past many years because many of you in this room stepped up and we delivered. And we can do that again. But we’ve got things that have to happen. Getting the ports open, stabilizing the markets, increasing production around the world. We’ll get through this storm, but we must act and we must act with urgency.’”
See also, reliefweb, War in Ukraine: WFP renews call to open Black Sea ports amid fears for global hunger, originally posted on May 20, 2022, updated May 22, 2022, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/war-ukraine-wfp-renews-call-open-black-sea ports-amid-fears-global-hunger#:~:text=The%20World%20Food%20Programme%20(WFP,of%20lives%20%E2%80%93%20around%2 0the%20world (“In impassioned pleas to the specially convened ‘call to action’ group on 18 May, attended by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Beasley added: ‘The silos are full. Why are the silos full? Because the ports are not operating … It is absolutely essential that we allow these ports to open because this is not just about Ukraine, this is about the poorest of the poor around the world who are on the brink of starvation as we speak’”.).
As reviewed in earlier posts, there are production issues on grains in a number of other countries flowing from heat or draught or low inventories. Challenges in other countries are complicating the ability to substitute products from other countries for the large volumes not being shipped from Ukraine. See May 16, 2022: Wheat prices spike following Indian export ban, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/05/16/wheatprices-spike-following-indian-export-ban/; May 15, 2022: India bans exports of wheat, complicating efforts to address global food security problems posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/05/15/india-bans-exports-of-wheat-complicating-efforts-toaddress-global-food-security-problems-posed-by-russias-war-in-ukraine/; April 19, 2022: Recent estimates of global effects from Russian invasion of Ukraine, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2022/04/19/recentestimates-of-global-effects-from-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/; April 19, 2022: Recent estimates of global effects from Russian invasion of Ukraine,
While many countries are expressing the desire to help out in the crisis and while the WTO and other multilateral organizations are taking or talking about some actions that are available to them, the crisis is likely to significantly worsen in the coming months as there is little likelihood that Russia will permit the reopening of the Black Sea ports to Ukrainian wheat and other products. The crisis will likely exceed the level of the challenges from the 2007-2008 period and will reduce global GDP growth, including forcing some areas into recession, will increase starvation and malnourishment and result in increased political instability in a number of countries around the world. Expect larger parts of the global community to view Russia as a pariah state. While trade is an important part of the answer, the war started by Russia is not controllable by global trade rules in fact. We are in for a challenging period with much of the harm born by those least able to handle the harm being inflicted.
Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
To read the full commentary from Current Thoughts on Trade, please click here.