BERLIN — Top world officials met in the German capital Friday to urge swift global action in the face of a mounting food crisis, as the war in Ukraine worsens conditions that have pushed millions of people into hunger.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock welcomed officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, for a summit aimed at finding solutions to the crisis, which the United Nations says has made nearly 200 million people acutely food insecure.
Officials have described a slow-building confluence of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and a spate of global conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, a major grain exporter whose crops are a key source of food for countries including Egypt and Lebanon.
U.S. officials at the summit stressed the need to compensate for the dramatic reduction in grain exports from Ukraine, which before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion exported some 6 million tons of grain a month by sea.
Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has left millions of tons of grain stuck in silos. Russian forces have also bombed grain silos and ports. Around the world, prices for many basic commodities and agricultural inputs have soared.
Russia, also a major exporter, has been blaming Western sanctions for growing hunger in Africa and elsewhere. Group of Seven leaders hit back Friday, saying in a statement that sanctions “include exemptions to allow Russian food and agricultural products to get to global markets.”
“This narrative that Russia has been pushing out that somehow our sanctions are contributing to food scarcity, that is entirely wrong, and it is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that exacerbated what was already a terrible preexisting condition,” Blinken said at a news conference after the summit.
Earlier Friday, Baerbock accused Russia of “waging a cynical grain war.”
While the meeting was not intended to solicit new donations for countries in need, some fresh funding from the world’s leading economic powers may come this weekend, when the government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will host President Biden and other leaders of the G-7 bloc of nations in the Bavarian Alps.
Though the effects of the Ukraine conflict have focused attention on mounting hunger, experts say that food security has been eroding for years, driven in part by a global food supply chain that is increasingly concentrated and vulnerable to disruption.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned of a coming worldwide “catastrophe,” calling the global hunger crisis “unprecedented.”
“This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage,” he said, the Associated Press reported. “No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”
Officials are trying to help Ukraine get its crops out by land, but so far that has provided only a fraction of that trade. “It’s virtually impossible to balance out the closing of the sea ports,” said Martin Frick, director of the U.N. World Food Program’s (WFP) global office in Berlin.
Officials describe a host of additional challenges, including persuading countries to drop export controls and convincing companies that ship and insure commodity transport to get Russian grain and fertilizer onto the world market. Many companies have been reluctant to do so because of sanctions on Russia, despite the fact that the sanctions don’t cover trade in food, a concern officials describe as “over-compliance.”
WFP officials say they need $22 billion this year to deal with emergency food needs but expect that they might be able to raise just half that.