On June 8, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Turkish capital, Ankara, to discuss opening shipping corridors for the export of Ukrainian grain.
During an appearance with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Lavrov downplayed the impact of blocking Ukrainian grain exports at Black Sea ports.
Lavrov accused the West of turning a “minor issue” into a “universal catastrophe.” He said “the share of this Ukrainian grain in question is less than 1% of the global production of wheat and other cereals.”
“Therefore, the current situation with Ukrainian grain has nothing to do with the food crisis,” he said.
That is false. Although numerous factors are driving global food insecurity, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and naval blockade of Ukrainian grain exports are playing a disrupting role that will hit many low-income countries hardest.
It is approximately correct that less than 1% of the world’s grain is stuck in Ukrainian ports, but that statistic both obscures and minimizes Russia’s responsibility and the importance of Ukraine’s grain to global supplies.
The International Grains Council (IGC) forecasts approximately 2,300 million metric tons of grain will be produced for the 2021/22 marketing year. Roughly 25 million metric tons of grain is trapped in Ukrainian ports, Reuters reported.
But grain production and grain exports are different matters.
The ICG estimates global trade of total grains for the 2021-22 marketing year at 416 million metric tons – less than a quarter of the total grain production forecast. So, Ukraine’s 25 million stranded metric tons would represent roughly 6% of global trade.
India, the second-largest wheat producer (some 13.5% of the total), accounts for less than 1% of global exports. Most of its wheat is consumed at home.
Ukraine’s wheat and corn exports were estimated at 10.5% and 12.8%, respectively, of 2021 world exports, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence GTAS Forecasting.
Several lower-income countries rely on wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine. For instance, Egypt, with a population of 103 million, has imported about 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, Reuters reported.
This is how Juergen Voegele, the World Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development, explains the situation, noting that wheat is a staple food for 35% of the world’s population:
“Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, accounting for about 18%, nearly 20% of global exports in 2021. And Ukraine accounts for another 10%.
“Now, they’re both not the largest producers of wheat – that’s India and China – but they are the largest exporters…
“So, [the Russian invasion is] a very significant shock.”
With its ports blocked, under attack or taken by Russia (as in Mariupol and Sevastapol) Ukraine has been forced to ship grain by land, drastically reducing export volumes. That hurts lower-income countries.
In a March report, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) warned “more than 5%of the import basket of the poorest countries are products that are likely to face a price hike resulting from the ongoing war in Ukraine.”
That share for richer countries “is below 1%,” UNCTAD said.
Libya, Lebanon, Mauritania, Somalia and Tunisia are all heavily dependent on Ukrainian wheat, according to UNCTAD data.
“In 81 countries where WFP works, acute hunger is expected to rise by 47 million people if the conflict in Ukraine continues unabated – this is a staggering 17% jump, with the steepest rises in sub-Saharan Africa,” the United Nations’ World Food Program warned.
How high are prices going?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Cereal Price Index for May 2022 increased “as much as [29.7%] above its May 2021 value.” International wheat prices also rose for four months straight.
In March, the FAO’s food price index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, hit its highest point “since records began in 1990,” because of a halt in Ukrainian exports spurred by Russia’s invasion, Reuters reported in May.
There are other factors driving up food prices. Extreme heat and drought conditions around the world, particularly the Horn of Africa, are imperiling millions with hunger and food insecurity.
The war in Ukraine, however, is having ripple effects.
“The steep increase in wheat prices was in response to an export ban announced by India amidst concerns over crop conditions in several leading exporting countries, as well as reduced production prospects in Ukraine because of the war,” the FAO said.
Then there are logistics. Voegele said:
“There is enough wheat on the planet and planting more wheat this spring and summer will make up of shortfall to a significant extent if the exports remain blocked out of Ukraine and Russia.
“So, it's not really a total supply issue, but the problem is that those countries that are used to importing from [Ukraine and Russia] now have to adjust, and that will not be painless and it will be very costly.”
Meantime, Lavrov attempted to blame Western economic sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the looming food crisis. He offered to lift the blockade in exchange for sanctions relief.
Lavrov also blamed Ukraine for placing mines around the port city of Odesa. Ukraine has said it cannot remove the mines without guarantees against a Russian amphibious assault on Odesa.
Russia decimated the port city of Mariupol and recently attacked a grain terminal complex at the port of Mykolaiv.
“Another Russian missile strike contributing to the global food crisis. Russian forces have destroyed the second-biggest grain terminal in Ukraine, in Mykolaiv,” tweeted Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief.
“In light of such reports, the disinformation spread by Putin deflecting blame becomes ever more cynical,” he said.
The United States also alleges Russia is attempting to sell plundered Ukrainian grain to drought-afflicted African countries, The New York Times reported.
Russia has denied that allegation.
A Ukrainian journalist at the Ankara press conference confronted Lavrov about the theft accusation, asking: “Apart from cereals, what other goods did you steal from Ukraine and who did you sell them to?”
Lavrov replied: “You [Ukrainians] are always worried about what you can steal and you think everyone thinks that way.”
Lavrov then repeated debunked claims that Russia is saving people in Ukraine “from the pressure of the neo-Nazi regime” and is not obstructing the movement of grain in Ukraine.