Calls Mount for Russia to Unblock Ukrainian Ports to Avert ‘Catastrophic’ Hunger Crisis

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Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven called on Russia to free up sea export routes for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products that are critical to feeding the world, as food prices rise and the World Food Program warns of the “catastrophic” consequences if Ukrainian ports remain blocked.

“We must not be naive. Russia has now expanded the war against Ukraine to many states as a grain war,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told a news conference on Saturday after the G-7 meetings. “It is not collateral damage, it is an instrument in a hybrid war that is intended to weaken Russia’s anti-war cohesion.”

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

As many as 50 million people will face hunger in the coming months unless Ukrainian grain is released, Baerbock said, according to the Associated Press. About 28 million tons of grain is stuck in Ukrainian ports blockaded by Russian forces.

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

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has all but captured the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have surrounded the last remaining Ukrainian fighters holed up at the Azovstal steel plant.

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

Ukraine’s wheat harvest, which feeds the world, cannot leave the country

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that such a disruption of port operations had probably not been seen in Ukraine since World War II. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that Ukraine was willing to engage in talks with Russia to unblock grain supplies, but that his government had received “no positive response” from officials in Moscow, the AP reported. .

David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Program, spoke with US lawmakers and Biden administration officials in Washington this week to stress the urgency of reopening ports and addressing the global food crisis.

Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people a year, and 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to the World Food Program.

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

The impact of the lockdown will be felt in rich and poor countries alike, Beasley said, and is already affecting market volatility. The war has pushed prices of wheat, cooking oil and other staples to record highs, and the US Department of Agriculture projected global wheat supplies would fall next crop year.

The countries of the Middle East and Africa are especially dependent on Ukrainian grain. Egypt gets 75 to 85 percent of its wheat supply from Ukraine and Russia, according to UN statistics. More than 60 percent of the wheat imported into Lebanon comes from the Ukraine. Somalia and Benin depend on Russia and the Ukraine for all their imported wheat.

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

Tunisia among the countries suffering the main economic consequences of the war in Ukraine

The World Food Program’s operating costs to help the same number of people have risen by more than $70 million a month due in part to rising food prices, Beasley said. The programme, which provides food aid to 125 million people on any given day, will have to cut rations even further. In Yemen, which has experienced an acute hunger crisis for years, the program has already halved food rations for 8 million people.

“We are running out of money, prices are killing us, we are billions short and now we have to decide which children eat, which children do not eat, which children live, 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 assistance. An emergency financing package for Ukraine containing such aid passed the House Tuesday night, but the Senate vote was postponed until next week.

Russia stepped up missile attacks on Odessa this week, raising new concerns about the security of the port. In a statement on Saturday, the G7 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 have not targeted actual port infrastructure there so far.

Russia, also a major grain producer and the world’s leading wheat exporter, stands to benefit if it continues to disrupt Ukraine’s exports. G-7 ministers promised on Saturday that sanctions against Russia would not “target essential exports of food and agricultural inputs to developing countries.”

The G-7 is made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The countries also promised to increase their contributions to the World Food Program and other aid organizations.

Ukraine also accused Russia of intentionally attacking Ukraine’s grain facilities and stealing grain from the occupied regions for export. A State Department spokesman confirmed to The Post that Russian strikes had damaged at least six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Beasley said he is “calling all friends I know who have any influence with Russia” to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow grain shipments from Ukraine to resume.

G-7 ministers said on Saturday they were looking at other options to get Ukrainian grain to countries in need, including establishing “agricultural solidarity lanes.” The European Commission presented a plan on Thursday to create such transport corridors, which would facilitate land shipments of Ukrainian grain to Europe.

Trucks and trains can only transport a fraction of the grain that normally leaves Ukraine’s ports, Beasley said. And Russia continues to attack the railway lines and transportation infrastructure in Ukraine. But Baerbock said on Saturday that “every tonne we can get out will help a little to deal with this hunger crisis,” reported the Financial Times.

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

Victoria Bisset and John Hudson contributed to this report.

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