Urgent measures to break the Russian blockade on grain exports from Ukrainian ports, including trying to open routes through Romanian and Baltic ports, will be discussed by the G7 agriculture and foreign ministers at meetings in Germany.
The grain export blockade is fast becoming one of the most urgent diplomatic and humanitarian crises in Ukraine. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said the US was working on solutions “to get this food out into the world so it could help bring prices down.”
The G7 foreign ministers will meet in the Baltic Sea resort of Weissenhaus, northeast of Hamburg, and the agriculture ministers in Stuttgart.
Cem Özdemir, the German agriculture minister and member of the Green Party, has been searching for months with the EU for alternative train routes through Poland and Belarus to the Baltic ports, but the different gauges of the trains between Ukraine and Poland, a backlog of pre-existing traffic and a shortage of suitable rail cars count against this option.
According to a Ukrainian estimate, only 20% of the exports that Ukraine normally shipped through Black Sea ports by ship could be transported by rail to Baltic ports. The cost of road transport has multiplied by five in the last year.
Before the war, most of the food produced by Ukraine, enough to feed 400 million people, was exported through the country’s seven Black Sea ports. In the eight months before the conflict began, some 51 million metric tons of grain passed through them, according to the UN World Food Program. The trade was worth $47 billion (£38 billion) a year to Ukraine.
Ukrainian Food and Agricultural Policy Minister Mykola Solsky has studied options ranging from Gdansk or further east to the port of Klaipėda in Lithuania and three ports in Latvia. The Baltic ports have lost trade from Russia and Belarus, including potash, so they currently have spare capacity.
The Romanian port of Constanța has also received some Ukrainian grain shipments, but the ships carrying the grain to Turkey would likely have to remain in Romanian waters.
The UN has also discussed whether a humanitarian corridor can be opened through Belarus to bring grain to Baltic ports, since the track gauge between Ukraine and Belarus is uniform.
David Beasley of the UN World Food Programme, who has been sounding the alarm for weeks, warned: “Right now Ukraine’s grain silos are full. At the same time, 44 million people around the world are marching into famine. We have to open these ports so that food can get in and out of Ukraine. The world demands it because hundreds of millions of people around the world depend on the food that comes through these ports.”
Normally, Ukraine would export about 5-6 million tons of grain and 700,000 tons of oilseeds through Black Sea ports per month. There is an estimated delay for the export of between 15 and 20 million tons according to the Agribusiness Club of Ukraine.
Markiyan Dmytrasevych, Ukraine’s deputy agrarian minister, said exports by rail could expand to between 600,000 tons and 1 million tons, but it would take 18-24 months to clear current inventories, and that’s before any new ones are added. crop. In April, only 560,000 metric tons were exported by rail from Ukraine.
Roman Slaston, general director of the Agribusiness Club of Ukraine, said reopening the ports, “Plan A”, remains the best option, but exports by road, river barge and rail truck could double to about half of what passes through the Ukrainian Black Sea. ports
The biggest growth potential, he said, would come from organizing an army of up to 10,000 trucks carrying grain on a five-day round trip from Ukraine to Baltic ports. He said Ukraine could use 40 EU grain terminals.
Slaston said up to 5,000 train cars loaded with grain at the Polish border were waiting to cross, but currently there was only the capacity to bring in 350 cars a day.
After the port city of Odessa was attacked by Russian missiles on Monday, Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelenskiy warned: “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the verge of food shortages. The poorest will be the most affected. The political repercussions of this will be terrible.”
David Miliband, executive director of the International Rescue Committee, said: “At this point, I think it’s at least as likely that sanctions on Russia are to blame for rising food prices as is the invasion of Ukraine. There is a great contest to be won for public opinion worldwide.”
There are already signs that Russian diplomacy is trying to shift the blame. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed on a visit to Oman that the Ukrainian authorities refused to allow ships carrying wheat to leave their ports and had mined the areas around the ports. Ukraine said the accusations were absurd.
In 2020, Ukraine was the fifth largest wheat exporter in the world, with low- and middle-income countries being major beneficiaries. The main export destinations were Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon.
In Egypt, where a third of the population lives below the official poverty line and relies on state-subsidized bread, flour prices have risen by 15%. Headline inflation for April was just over 13%.
In the month after the start of the conflict, export prices for wheat and maize increased by 22% and 20% respectively, in addition to strong increases in 2021.
Solsky said these increases are likely to continue as Ukrainian farmers’ planting campaign has been delayed by as much as a fifth due to lack of herbicides, colder weather, diesel fuel and vehicle movement due to shocks. leftover Farmers have switched from spring crops to sunflowers and soybeans. It is estimated that about a fifth of Ukrainian agricultural land is now in Russian hands.