FPI / March 23, 2023
By John J. Metzler
Despite a widening war with Russia, shipments of Ukrainian food and grain are still being shipped to global markets under a complex but fragile accord brokered by the United Nations and nearby Turkey.
Since the deal was initiated last Summer, The Black Sea Grain Initiative has allowed for the ex-port of 24 million metric tons of grain and over 1,600 vessel voyages through the Black Sea and on to ports in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was, and still is, a major grain and foodstuff producer. So is Russia for that matter. The problem was the Russians originally closed off Ukraine’s Back Sea ports so food could not be shipped out. Moscow’s concession under a parallel Memorandum of Understanding was that Russian fertilizers can also be exported overseas.
Intense diplomatic negotiations brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, who controls the narrow and strategic Bosphorus shipping channel through which the vessels must pass, thus agreed to a deal with both Ukraine and Russia. The Black Sea Initiative based in Istanbul, inspects ships of both belligerents and then grain and needed fertilizer sail forth.
According to the UN, Ukrainian vessels guide cargo ships into international waters of the Black Sea, avoiding mined areas. The ships then proceed towards Istanbul along the agreed maritime humanitarian corridor.
Russia was recently balking at the objectives of the agreement and threatening to pull out. Given that wide-ranging Western sanctions restrict bank payments, even though Russian food and fertilizer exports are not sanctioned, Moscow is pushing for a return to the SWIFT banking system. Moscow provisionally reentered the agreement for a two-month extension, rather than a four-month period.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres emphasized, “that the UN remains fully committed to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, as well as to efforts to facilitate the export of Russian food and fertilizer.”
Still should Moscow’s demands on easing its wider sanctions not be met, diplomats warn there’s a strong chance Russia will not renew the deal in two months’ time causing wider food insecurity.
During talks in Geneva, the UN added that, “The continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is crucial for global food security, as grain and fertilizer prices and availability have not returned to pre-war levels, causing hardship particularly in developing countries.” Yet only three Ukrainian ports such as Odessa are open for commerce. This is the key.
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Chief Humanitarian coordinator informed the Security Council, “The war has had very significant implications for global food insecurity…the world relies on these supplies.” He added, that while 25 million metric tons of Ukrainians foodstuffs have been exported, since last August, the Word Food Program (WFP), “has been able to transport more than half a million metric tons of wheat to support humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen.”
So where do the Ukrainian food shipments go? As would be expected shipments are still below pre-war levels by about a third. Actually about half of the foodstuffs are going to developing countries while the rest go to the developed world. Exports primarily include corn, wheat and sunflower oil.
The continuing fragility of food prices continues to stalk most of the world. While global food prices have spiked in poorer countries in the wake of the war, costs are slowly beginning to moderate.
Still, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO) food prices in January 2023 were 45 percent above the average over the past two decades. What is equally troubling is even with some lower prices, countries like Argentina, Egypt and Ghana are paying higher prices given their own currency depreciation.
As U.S. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a Security Council briefing, “The Black Sea Grain Initiative slashes global food prices. It calms market volatility. It ameliorates global food security. It saves lives. It must continue, reliably and sustainably.”
Significantly the humanitarian deal has become a lifeline for both embattled Ukrainian farmers as well as for forty-five countries who depend on Ukrainian food.
Yet as Martin Griffiths implored, “More than ever, we need a political solution to the war in Ukraine. The people of Ukraine deserve peace. They deserve to turn the page on this terrible war.”
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).
Free Press International
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