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12th Apr 2024

Unblocking Black Sea 'only solution' to prevent food crisis

  • Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky last week warned that up to 60 million tonnes of grain could be stuck in the country by the autumn if no solution is found to the blockade of seaports in the Black Sea (Photo: Jan Fidler)
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As the summer harvest season begins in Ukraine during wartime, farmers face multiple challenges — while a hunger catastrophe looms.

Ukraine is one of the world's biggest exporters of agricultural goods, but the country's export capacity has significantly decreased since the war began in late February.

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The Russian blockade of seaports in the BlackSea is holding back thousands of tonnes of grain from being exported. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky last week warned that up to 60 million tonnes of grain could be stuck in the country by the autumn if no alternative solution is found.

But alternative rail and river routes are seen as insufficient to make up for the amount of wheat and grain normally transported by sea.

"The only solution is deblocking the Black Sea," Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun, deputy leader of the Holos Party, told EUobserver on Monday (11 July).

The EU has focused most of its efforts on increasing exports via land corridors, but this was not making a "systemic difference," Sovsun said.

Differing rail-gauge widths between Ukraine and most EU member states is one of the major obstacles to the re-routing of Ukrainian agricultural exports by land.

"Helping us to destroy the Russian fleet in the Black Sea would be the best solution, but … it is easier for the EU to be more flexible when dealing with Russia — and unfortunately Russia exploits that," Sovsun added.

Solidarity lanes

About 1.7 million tonnes of grain have flowed through the Ukrainian-Romanian border and the Ukrainian-Polish border since the EU put forward the so-called solidarity lsnes. But they are only "partially functioning," German centre-right MEP Norbert Lins told MEPs from the agriculture committee on Monday.

Lins argued that only 138,000 tonnes of wheat have come through the two borders, while most of the feed remains in Ukraine's neighbouring states. Yet, no trade between Ukraine and third countries is happening.

"There's an obvious market failure" that requires market action because there are some problems building up in Poland and Romania and the crisis of hunger is growing, Lins added. "We need to have more intervention, more coordination".

Summer season

Ukrainian farmers have already threshed the first million tonnes of grain from the summer season — and logistical export-related problems and limited storage have prompted international efforts to boost temporary silos and prevent massive losses of cereals.

Ukraine has lost 14.1 million metric tonnes of storage capacity as a result of the Russian invasion — while 30 percent of the available capacity remains filled with last year's harvest.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine exported some five to six million tonnes of grain per month, mainly via the Black Sea.

Ukraine exported 322,000 metric tons in March, 970,000 in April, 1.2 million in May and over 1 million in June, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Meanwhile, large-scale fires are occurring, as a result of shelling agricultural land.

Russian troops set 20 hectares of Ukrainian grain fields on fire last week, according to Ukraine's official sources. But Sovsun said that these attacks cannot be considered "systematic" — at least not yet.

Meanwhile, increasing prices of seeds, weedkillers, fertilisers and fuels are increasing the burden on farmers — driving up food prices.

Global food prices have been increasing since the start of the pandemic. But export disruption in Ukraine has pushed prices even higher, increasing the risk of hunger in some African countries, Southern Asia, and the Middle East.

Echoing Ukrainian concerns, UN humanitarian aid coordinator Martin Griffiths said that unblocking Black Sea ports is the only option to prevent global hunger.

"As food insecurity mounts around the world, opening the Black Sea route is our best bet to mitigate global hunger," he tweeted on Sunday.

'Not a threat, at the moment'

The European Commission will update member states next Monday (18 July) on the current situation in European agricultural markets and food security.

"From a food security perspective, the situation could prove to be challenging … but food security and food supply are not a threat in the EU at the moment," reads an internal document seen by EUobserver.

Yet, Lins said this year's harvest forecasts in Europe had been revised downwards.

The UN previously warned that the war in Ukraine could lead to between eight and 13 million more people being undernourished next year.

EU urged to grow more wheat to avert food crisis

European agriculture ministers have called for higher domestic farm output, amid food security worries, and a looming food crisis in Africa. Many African countries, eg Benin, Egypt, Sudan, Madagascar, and Burundi, are almost entirely, or exclusively, dependent on Ukrainian grain.

EU states warn of looming food-price crisis

Prices of cereals, fertilisers, and oilseed have shot up drastically in several European markets due to Russia's war on Ukraine, prompting some member states to seek EU aid.

EU seeks to ease Ukraine export woes

The EU wants to expand its so-called 'solidarity lanes' to help Ukraine exports its goods towards member states. EU officials briefing reporters say around 2.6 million tonnes of Ukrainian agricultural goods were exported via such lanes in August.

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