TIPP Insights: Food – fueling the war

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By TIPPINSIGHTS EDITORIAL BOARD, TIPP Insights

Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, drew flak from many quarters for suggesting that Ukraine should pursue peace even at the cost of ceding territory to the invader, Russia. The criticism and condemnation came thick and fast, though Ukrainian officials had agreed to permanently cease their attempts to procure NATO membership and expressed a willingness to discuss Russian territorial claims back in March.

The Ukraine war has entered its fourth month. Early this month, the U.S. gave 40 billion dollars in aid to Kyiv to fight Russia. However, the cost of this war is not being borne solely by Ukraine, its neighbors, Russia, or the United States. The war has implications for the fate of countries as far as Africa and Asia.

While much of the world’s focus was on soaring energy costs and President Putin’s control over the energy supply to the EU, another necessary commodity grew dearer by the day – food.

Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of food grains like wheat and barley. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Ukraine “plays a critical role in supplying oilseeds and grains to the global market.” Data suggest that Ukrainian corn exports account for 14% of the world’s exports of the commodity. The country holds 10% of wheat and 17% of the world’s barley share. Thirty-six countries rely on Moscow and Kyiv for 50% of their wheat imports. Kyiv also falls into the top six exporters of chicken and honey. The country is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil.

But, with the attack on Ukraine, food exports have fallen to all-time lows. Since the beginning of the invasion, food prices have risen globally, reaching record highs.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index averaged 158.5 points in April 2022. Though the figure is 1.2 points below the previous month’s record high numbers, it is still 36.4 points (29.8 percent) higher than the values in April 2021. The conditions were so dire that the United Nations put out a brief warning of severe food shortages and food insecurity in more than fifty emerging nations. According to UN figures, 276 million people worldwide are severely food-insecure today. With the rising cost of fertilizers, droughts, and the effects of climate change, the UN has asked countries to work together to prevent another humanitarian disaster.

Though Ukrainians have bravely fought back Russian troops, key seaports and railways have fallen into the invader’s hands. This has had an enormous impact on food exports, as almost ninety percent of Ukrainian exports are conducted through the Black Sea. The head of the United Nations’ World Food Program, David Beasley, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “Failure to open up the ports is a declaration of war on global food security.” Suggestions have been made that a global coalition should form a naval flotilla to escort commercial ships carrying food supplies through the Black Sea. Diplomatic pressure would likely sway Turkey, which controls access to the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreaux Convention, to work for the greater good.

Russia has increased its grain exports and is filling its coffers, taking advantage of the situation. Reports have emerged that Moscow has exported wheat to countries like Israel since it attacked Ukraine. With Moscow expecting a bumper wheat harvest, food, besides energy, will become a powerful economic weapon in the hands of the autocratic leader. For the sake of the world’s food security, the leaders may have to pay heed to Mr. Kissinger’s words.

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