Urgent measures to break the Russian blockade of grain exports from Ukrainian ports, including trying to open routes through Romanian and Baltic ports, will be discussed by G7 foreign and agriculture ministers in meetings in Germany.
The grain export blockade is becoming one of the most pressing diplomatic and humanitarian crises in Ukraine. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said the United States was working on solutions “to get this food out into the world so it can help bring prices down.”
G7 foreign ministers are meeting in the Baltic Sea resort of Weissenhaus northeast of Hamburg, and agriculture ministers in Stuttgart.
Cem Özdemir, Germany’s agriculture minister and Green Party member, has been exploring alternative rail routes through Poland and Belarus to Baltic ports for months with the EU, but the different train gauges between the he Ukraine and Poland, a pre-existing traffic backlog and the shortage of suitable wagons are all obstacles to this option.
According to a Ukrainian estimate, only 20% of the exports that Ukraine normally sends by ship through Black Sea ports could be transported by rail to Baltic ports. The cost of road transport has increased fivefold over the past 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 start of the conflict, nearly 51 million metric tons of grain passed through it, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. The trade was worth $47bn (£38bn) a year to Ukraine.
Ukrainian Agriculture and Food Policy Minister Mykola Solsky has been exploring options from Gdansk or further east to the port of Klaipėda in Lithuania and three ports in Latvia. The Baltic ports have lost trade with Russia and Belarus, including potash, and therefore currently have spare capacity.
The Romanian port of Constanța has also taken some shipments of Ukrainian grain, but ships then transporting the grain to Turkey are likely to remain in Romanian waters.
The UN has also discussed the possibility of opening a humanitarian corridor through Belarus to bring grain to Baltic ports, as the track gauge between Ukraine and Belarus is uniform.
David Beasley of the UN World Food Programme, which 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 heading towards starvation. We need to open these ports so that food can flow in and out of Ukraine. The world demands it because hundreds of millions of people around the world depend on the food that passes through these ports.
As a rule, Ukraine exports monthly about 5-6 million tons of grain and 700 thousand tons of oilseeds through the Black Sea ports. There is an estimated backlog for exporting anything between 15 and 20 million tonnes according to the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club.
Markiyan Dmytrasevych, Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister, said rail exports could be expanded to between 600,000 tons and 1 million tons, but it would take 18 to 24 months to clear current stocks, and this before adding any new crop. In April, only 560,000 metric tons were exported by rail from Ukraine.
Roman Slaston, Managing Director of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, said: “We need a Plan ‘A’ that unblocks Ukrainian ports, and we are constantly saying and delivering that message… It could alleviate the global crisis that may result from hunger.
After the port city of Odessa was hit by Russian missiles on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy warned: “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortage. The poorest will be the hardest hit. The political repercussions of this will be terrible.
David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said: “At the moment, I think it’s at least as likely that sanctions against Russia are responsible for the rise in food prices, just as the invasion of Ukraine. There is a huge contest to be won for world public opinion.
There are already signs that Russian diplomacy is trying to shift the blame. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, claimed during a visit to Oman that the Ukrainian authorities refused to let ships carrying wheat out of their ports and had mined the areas around the ports. Ukraine said the charges were absurd.
In 2020, Ukraine was the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter, 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 depends on state-subsidized bread, flour prices have risen by 15%. General inflation for the month of April was slightly above 13%.
In the month since the start of the conflict, export prices for wheat and maize have increased by 22% and 20% respectively, on top of the sharp increases in 2021.
Solsky said those increases are likely to continue as Ukrainian farmers’ sowing campaign has been delayed by a fifth due to a lack of herbicides, colder weather, diesel fuel and heavy vehicle traffic. due to curfews. Farmers switched from spring crops to sunflower and soybeans. It is estimated that about a fifth of Ukrainian agricultural land is now in Russian hands.