Grain exports will help ease food crisis

, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 13, 2022


By Quincy Masana Kholonyane and Sizo Nkala

Russia launched its war against Ukraine amid a deteriorating global food crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, about 828 million people globally (9.8% of the world population) were facing hunger.

Almost 2.3 billion people were identified as either moderately or severely food insecure. The disruption caused by the pandemic is reported to have pushed 150 million people into hunger and 350 million into various levels of food insecurity.

The beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war made a bad situation worse in terms of global food security. This is not the least because Russia and Ukraine are major players in the global food market. Both countries are net exporters of critical cereal crops such as wheat, maize and barley. Sunflower oil also dominates the food export basket of the two neighbours.

They were responsible for a significant share of world exports of important cereals – sunflower (64%), wheat (23%), barley (19%) and maize (18%). The two countries also produce 56% of sunflower, 19% of barley, 13% of wheat, and 4.4% of maize. Ukraine reportedly contributed 40% of the World Food Programme’s wheat stock.

The WFP distributes food to millions of people across the world who are affected by hunger. However, in the early days of the war, the Russian navy mounted an effective blockade on the Black Sea. This meant that Ukraine’s Black Sea ports of Odesa, Pivdennyi, Mykolaiv, Olvia and Chornomorsk, which facilitate 98% of Ukraine’s grain exports, were effectively under siege and ceased to be operational.

Thus, Ukraine’s grain exports were stopped, locking in up to 25 million tons of grain and drastically reducing global food supplies. The war affected not only the movement of grain but also farming due to the destruction of considerable agricultural land and stifled access to key inputs such as fertilisers and seeds.

The impact of the war on the global food market was swift and massive, with global food prices rising by 12.6% between February and March 2022. Some of the hardest-hit countries included Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Turkey which saw food price inflation of 396%, 75% and 70% respectively, plunging millions of people into hunger.

The sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies for its war in Ukraine led to a sharp rise in oil prices which pushed the food price inflation even higher. As such, an urgent solution was needed to unlock the Black Sea supply chains and avert an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Reintegrating Ukraine’s food supplies into the world market was of utmost importance. There was a ray of hope when the UN and Turkey brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine for the latter to end the Black Sea blockade to allow the export of Ukrainian grain. Russia and Ukraine signed the deal on July 22.

The deal also offered secure passage of Russian fertiliser products which are important in boosting agricultural yields the world over. Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertiliser and the reduction of its exports due to the war had driven fertiliser prices through the roof which contributed to the global food price inflation.

The agreement provided that ships would navigate the Black Sea waters, under the supervision of Ukraine’s navy in order to avoid mined areas, and proceed to Turkey’s Bosporus strait through a specialised corridor that would then lead the vessels to various ports of the world.

A week after the deal was signed, Ukraine’s Odesa port dispatched its first ship since the beginning of the war, on August 1. A Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship, named Razoni, carried a Ukraine grain shipment of 26 527 tons of corn out of Ukraine’s Odessa port.

At the time of writing, 10 ships carrying grain had departed Ukrainian ports for various parts of the world, overseen by the Joint Co-ordination Centre in Turkey. In the four months that the deal will be in effect, Ukraine hopes to export more than 20 million tons of grain.

This will go a long way in easing the global food crisis by increasing supplies and bringing food prices down. However, it is far from guaranteed that the deal will stick through the agreed duration. The deal could be violated if it suits the interests of the warring parties.

Nonetheless, the impact of the deal on the food crisis is short term and limited. The grain that Ukraine is exporting now was harvested before the war. The war will erode Ukraine’s agricultural production capacity which will reduce the size of its exports in the long term.

Hence, the future of global food security lies not in the short-term truce in the Black Sea but in ending the war.

* Kholonyane and Nkala are from the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.