Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement Friday in Istanbul to restart Ukrainian grain shipments to buyers across the world and help Russia export grain and fertilizers — a deal hailed as a major diplomatic breakthrough after months of growing concerns that the war in Ukraine would continue to worsen the mounting global food crisis.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and the ripple effects of Western sanctions on Moscow have driven up global food prices, raised fears of looming grain shortages and exacerbated concerns about rising hunger around the world.
Ukraine and Russia produce about a third of the wheat traded in global markets, and about a quarter of the world’s barley, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Exports from the two countries — which also include sunflower oil and corn to feed livestock — account for about 12 percent of total calories traded.
The war could affect at least three wheat harvests in Ukraine, the country’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said in an interview with Reuters in June, with last year’s harvest still stuck at Black Sea ports and nowhere to store the incoming crops.
U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of weaponizing food and called for the reopening of Ukraine’s ports for months. The crisis comes as climate disasters, conflict and economic strain from the coronavirus pandemic were already causing hunger to worsen in many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
The war in Ukraine could push up the number of people facing acute food insecurity by 47 million this year, according to the United Nations.
The deal signed Friday is meant to mitigate the crisis — but it’s unclear how quickly and effectively it will translate into grain leaving Ukrainian ports and reaching hungry people.
“What we’re focusing on now is holding Russia accountable for implementing this agreement and for enabling Ukrainian grain to get to world markets,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday. “It has been for far too long that Russia has enacted this blockade.”
Some places have already felt the effects of the grain crisis.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, depends heavily on imported grain. Wheat makes up a large portion of the diet, but only 1 percent of the wheat consumed annually is produced domestically.
About 43 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. Malnutrition and food insecurity have stunted the growth of more than a third of children under age 5, according to government statistics from 2018.
The war in Ukraine has compounded other factors fueling hunger, including an insurgency in the northeast and a below-average rainfall forecast in the country’s Middle Belt and southern regions.
Nigeria was among a handful of nations ranked at the highest alert level in the latest U.N. “Hunger Hotspots” report. This year, the number of people in Nigeria included under the “emergency” category in the international food insecurity classification system is projected to reach nearly 1.2 million between June and August.
“Africa has no control over production or logistics chains and is totally at the mercy of the situation,” Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, said ahead of a trip to Russia this month to seek a resolution to the crisis.
Sall later warned in an interview with France 24 that famine could destabilize the continent.
Somalia and Ethiopia
Somalia and Ethiopia are dealing with a lethal intersection of climate change, conflict and rising food prices.
Along with Kenya, the countries are in the midst of their worst drought in four decades. More than 18.4 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya face acute food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
Because of the “very severe climactic conditions,” countries in the Horn of Africa needed to import more food than usual this year, David Laborde, senior research fellow at the IFPRI, said. But Somalia relies on Russia and Ukraine for more than 90 percent of its wheat imports.
Domestic conflicts are further complicating access to food. In Somalia, fighting between the government and al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants continues to drive displacement. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been battling rebels from the northern Tigray region since 2020. More than 9 million people have required food aid because of the war, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of thousands were on the brink of famine during some periods.
The war in Ukraine contributed to a surge in food prices in Ethiopia this spring, with aid groups reporting a “massive shortage” of bread and oil.
Somalia and Ethiopia also fall under the United Nations’ highest alert category — Phase 5 of the Integrated Phase Classification — where some populations are “identified or projected to experience starvation or death.”
More than 80,000 people in Somalia could face these conditions this year, according to U.N. projections. Children are already dying of malnutrition, and nearly 2 million across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia need treatment urgently. More than a half-million Somalis fled their homes in search of food in the first quarter of this year.
“The crisis is worse now than anytime in my lifetime working in Somalia for the last 20 years, and it is because of the compounded effect of the war in Ukraine,” Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, Somalia country director for the charity Save the Children, told The Washington Post.
UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund, has warned that the Ukraine conflict is hampering its ability to respond. The cost of therapeutic food the agency uses to treat children with severe acute malnutrition is expected to rise by 16 percent globally over the next six months, UNICEF’s deputy regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Rania Dagash, said in June.
The Middle East and North Africa region is particularly affected by the conflict because of its proximity to the Black Sea, Corinne Fleischer, the World Food Program’s regional director, told The Post in May.
The coronavirus pandemic caused hunger in the region to rise by 25 percent. “We’re expecting another 10 to 12 percent rise, because those people who are at risk now get higher prices, and that’s going to make them dependent on receiving food aid,” she said.
Supply issues and high food prices caused by the war could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Fleischer said.
Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat. Russia and Ukraine together supplied more than 80 percent of the country’s wheat imports before the war.
Traditional “baladi” flatbread is the backbone of the Egyptian diet, and the government subsidizes bread for more than 70 million of Egypt’s approximately 102 million people.
Famine isn’t a concern in Egypt, Laborde said. Instead, worries revolve around the cost for the government to “maintain their social safety net programs and to avoid some kind of political instability,” he said.
High food prices were among the economic woes that contributed to the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. And price increases affecting bread and other goods in Egypt in the 1970s sparked riots that prompted the government to quickly reverse course.
“Conflict drives hunger, and hunger feeds conflict,” Fleischer said.
To stave off discontent, the government has looked for new wheat suppliers, ordered Egyptian farmers to harvest their wheat ahead of schedule and sought funds from Saudi Arabia and the IMF to help bankroll its bread subsidies, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The government has kept bread subsidies in place but added stricter conditions for eligibility to curb spending. It also put limits on the amount vendors can charge for unsubsidized baladi bread, according to the Journal — so bakeries and bread sellers are bearing the brunt of the rising global wheat prices.
The World Bank approved a $500 million loan in late June to support Egypt’s efforts to ensure poor and vulnerable households can access bread. The funds will also go toward changes to food security policies. President Biden told Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi during a meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, this month that the United States would provide $1 billion in new aid to address food security in the Middle East, with $50 million specifically for Egypt.
The World Food Program was already providing food for 13 million people in Yemen, where a long civil war has driven up food and fuel prices and caused a widespread hunger crisis.
The agency typically buys half of the wheat for its global food assistance from Ukraine. At a time when more people around the world require aid, the cost of providing it has gone up, leaving the agency with budget shortfalls. The WFP announced last month that it was suspending part of its food aid in South Sudan after funding ran out.
“We’re now having to decide which children eat, which children don’t eat, which children live, which children die,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley told The Post in May. The program already had to cut food rations for 8 million people in Yemen before Russia invaded Ukraine. Fleischer said that month that the agency feared it would have to cut more.
As part of the Ukraine aid bill lawmakers passed in May, the United States allocated $5 billion to address global food shortages stemming from the war.
Still, for some people in countries vulnerable to famine and mired in conflict, the effects of the war in Ukraine could make the difference between life and death.
“You can survive up to the point where you cannot,” Laborde said.
Sudarsan Raghavan contributed to this report, which has been updated.