On 21 July 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following:

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) to move that this House takes note of (1) the impact of the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports on food insecurity in developing countries, and (2) its contribution to the danger of famine in (a) the Horn of Africa, and (b) East Africa.

1. Importance of Ukraine and Russia to global food supplies

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that the Russian Federation and Ukraine are among the most important producers of agricultural commodities in the world. Both countries are net exporters of agricultural products and are leading suppliers of foodstuffs and fertilizers to global markets, where exportable supplies are often concentrated in a handful of countries. The FAO notes that these high concentrations can increase the vulnerability of such markets to shocks and volatility.

The FAO further observes that in 2021 either the Russian Federation or Ukraine, or both, ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed and rapeseed oil, sunflower seed and sunflower oil. The Russian Federation also ranked as the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, the second leading supplier of potassic fertilizers and the third largest exporter of phosphorous fertilizers.

A selection of this production data is illustrated below:

Share in global production of selected crops (2016/17–2020/21 average)

Share in global production of selected crops, 2016/17 to 2020/21 on average.

(Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ‘The importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation for global agricultural markets and the risks associated with the war in Ukraine’, 10 June 2022)

2. Impact of the war on international food markets

Some elements of global agri-food supply chains were already under pressure prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, in fertiliser supply, where China had restricted fertiliser exports and a rail strike in Canada had negatively impacted the productivity of the world’s largest fertiliser producer.

These issues have been exacerbated by the war. The head of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the world is risking a global food crisis that could last until 2024 as a result of events in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Food prices on international markets have already risen significantly, particularly given the roles of both Russia and Ukraine as important producers of various agricultural products. The FAO reported that its global food price index hit a record high in March 2022. In the latest data, the index averaged 157.4 points in May 2022, which was down 0.9 points (0.6 percent) from April, marking the second consecutive monthly decline. However, the index remained 29.2 points (22.8 percent) above its value in the corresponding month in 2021.

Recent analysis from the House of Commons Library on the impact of the conflict notes:

The conflict may lead to Ukrainian farmers being unable to spread fertilisers and pesticides and plant seeds for the spring crop due to be harvested in the summer. In addition, Ukraine’s Black Sea ports are transportation hubs for exporting certain commodities, including grains. They have mostly been shut since the invasion. A surge in fertiliser prices may also lead to higher costs. Russia […] has put restrictions on exports, with supplies also disrupted.

In response to a recent parliamentary question on the impact of the conflict on food markets, UK minister for exports, Mike Freer, said:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly exacerbated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens the poorest and most vulnerable globally.

Further information can be found in the Brookings article, ‘The war in Ukraine triggered a global food shortage’, June 2022.

3. What are the implications for less developed countries in particular?

The FAO noted that global hunger projections for 2022 indicate that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face food crisis or exacerbated levels of acute food insecurity. However, most of these analyses do not take into consideration the impacts of the war in Ukraine. The FAO argues that “without rapid and sustained humanitarian action that strongly focuses on local food production, the global food security situation is likely to deteriorate substantially”.

The FAO also observe that supplies from Ukraine and Russia are particularly important for the Least Developed Countries (LDC) and those which fall into Low-Income Food-Deficit Country (LIFDC) groups who import large amounts of food, which includes a significant number of African nations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also said rising global food prices will disproportionally affect those in Africa. It notes that food costs account for 17% of consumer spending in advanced economies, but 40% in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is a major importer of wheat from Russia and Ukraine; as many as 25 countries in the continent import more than one third of their wheat from the two countries. Domestic agriculture production will also be affected by rising fertiliser and fuel cost.

In an article from the Africa Renewal magazine posted on the UN website in May 2022, Josefa Sacko and Ibrahim Mayaki note that Africa is already experiencing price shocks and disruptions in the supply chain for wheat, sunflower oil and crude oil. They add:

Russia and Ukraine, both often referred to as the world’s breadbasket, are major players in the export of wheat and sunflower to Africa. North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia), Nigeria in West Africa, Ethiopia and Sudan in East Africa, and South Africa account for 80 per cent of wheat imports. Wheat consumption in Africa is projected to reach 76.5 million tonnes by 2025, of which 48.3 million tonnes or 63.4 per cent is projected to be imported outside of the Continent.

[…]

Some regions, including the Horn of Africa and Sahel region, are at greater risk of food insecurity due to country-specific shocks, climate change, export restrictions, and stockpiling, especially if rising fertilizer and other energy-intensive input costs will negatively impact the next agricultural season as a result of the ongoing conflict.

The economic impact of the war in Ukraine to countries in Africa will not only be felt through commodities. Managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, said that the crisis came at a time when African nations were already seeking to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic:

The war in Ukraine is devastating the lives of millions of people and severely affecting the Ukrainian economy. The war and the unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia are having far-reaching consequences. They come at a delicate time for Africa.

Just as the global economy and the continent are beginning to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, this new crisis threatens to undo some of that progress.

Noting that Africa’s recovery from the pandemic was already lagging other regions, she added:

Africa is particularly vulnerable to impacts from the Ukraine war through four main channels—increased food prices, higher fuel prices, lower tourism revenues, and potentially more difficulty accessing international capital markets.

A joint alert by meteorological agencies and humanitarian partners including the UK’s Met Office and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned in May 2022 that there was a significant risk of famine in East Africa. Noting the devastating impact of four failed rainy seasons in the region, the release said that drought, food insecurity and acute malnutrition have all been exacerbated by other concurrent shocks, including conflict/insecurity, rising global fuel, food, and fertilizer prices due to the Ukraine crisis, macroeconomic challenges, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Oxfam report that 28 million people across East Africa may be at risk of extreme hunger.

The World Food Programme (WFP) note that 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. According to WFP, in the eight months before the conflict began close to 51mn metric tons of grain passed through them. The International Rescue Committee CEO, David Miliband, has drawn an explicit link to the crisis in Africa and the blockade of Ukrainian ports:

Ukraine has long been the breadbasket not just for its neighbours in the region or for Europe, but for the world. Blockades on ports in the Black Sea are holding thousands of tons of wheat, grain and fertilizer hostage—with devastating consequences for millions already caught in growing hunger crises worldwide. These blockades must be lifted immediately.

In places like Ethiopia, where 8.6 million are going hungry as the region is pushed into a catastrophic hunger crisis, the UN humanitarian appeals remain less than one-third funded. These millions are being doubly punished as life-saving supplies are held hostage.

Also commenting on the crisis, UN Secretary General António Guterres said:

There really is no true solution to the problem of global food security without bringing back the agriculture production of Ukraine and the food and fertilizer production of Russia and Belarus into world markets despite the war.

4. Russian blockade and latest developments

The FAO note that active fighting has damaged inland transport infrastructure and seaports in Ukraine, as well as storage and processing infrastructure. It has also led to the suspension of all commercial shipping operations across its ports. The FAO notes that this raises significant concerns given the limited means of alternative transportation, such as rail, river or road transport, to seaports and smaller processing facilities to compensate for suspended operations at modern oilseeds crushing facilities.

The situation in Ukraine remains fluid and subject to change. At the time of writing, Russia continues to blockade all of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and has seized ports in the neighbouring Azov Sea. According to newly declassified US intelligence as reported by the Guardian, the Russian navy has also reportedly been given orders to lay mines at the ports of Odesa and Ochakiv, and has already mined the Dnieper River, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian grain exports.

Other recent developments include allegations that Russian-registered shipping vessels have transported grain stolen from Ukraine out of the country, turning off their tracking devices in order to avoid detection. Similarly, there is evidence that Russian forces in occupied areas of Ukraine have been systematically stealing grain and other produce from local farmers. Ukraine alleges that Russia has stolen more than 600,000 tonnes of grain from occupied Ukrainian territories to sell on international markets.

Turkey is a key actor in this issue. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, Turkey has control over the water route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and beyond through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. So far, Turkey has often sought to play the role of mediator between the two sides despite being a member of NATO. Turkish authorities have reportedly appeared reluctant to take action against ships that Ukraine said were carrying grain stolen by Russia from the country. Recently, a cargo ship carrying grain from a Russian-occupied region of Ukraine was detained by Turkish customs authorities. However, the ship was subsequently allowed to leave the port of Karasu, leading to the Ukrainian government summoning the Turkish ambassador to complain. For its part, Russia has denied the claims. Despite acknowledging the vessel was Russian-flagged, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed it was owned by Kazakhstan.

The Financial Times does report that Turkey has engaged in intense diplomacy along with the UN in a bid to establish a grain corridor to ensure safe passage for about 20mn tonnes of wheat trapped in Ukraine that must be exported before the summer harvest.

In the latest news, the BBC are reporting on 14 July 2022 that according to Turkey talks aimed at resuming Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea have produced a deal. Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said both sides had agreed on ways to ensure the safety of shipping routes for grain ships. He said the agreement would be signed next week when more talks are set to be held in Turkey. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the progress a “critical step forward”.

5. UK government and wider international policy response

In the same response to a recent parliamentary question on the impact of the conflict on food markets, quoted above, Mike Freer said the UK and the wider G7 was committed to mitigating the impact of the crisis in Ukraine on global food chains:

The G7 is committed to providing support to those countries who need it and ensuring any sanctions against Russia have no direct impact on food security or supply chains.

The UK is working with Ukraine and international partners to help Ukraine export its grain and play its role as the breadbasket of the world […]

The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee chair, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, wrote to the Government specifically on the point of the humanitarian crisis in East Africa and the problems being caused by the blockade. In her reply published 6 July 2022, the minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Vicky Ford, outlined the Government’s response:

[M]any communities are facing huge pressures across East Africa. The ongoing drought is causing water scarcity, alarming rates of malnutrition and has led to the deaths of nearly 4 million livestock causing the collapse of markets. The presence of famine conditions in Somalia and Ethiopia and the likelihood that the October–December rains might also fail are extremely concerning. Severe humanitarian needs will persist throughout 2022 and into 2023.

Across the region, UK-funded humanitarian activities are making a difference and saving lives. For example, in Kenya 26,000 children will receive life-saving nutritional assistance thanks to the UK’s support. In southern and eastern regions of Ethiopia a further 200,000 people will receive similar urgent aid.

The minister added that the UK was working with other international organisations and remained a siginiciant donor to the region:

We are also pressing organisations such as the World Bank and the UN to do more to scale up efforts at speed. The UK is using its position as a major shareholder in the World Bank to encourage urgent action in East Africa. As part of this I recently wrote to David Malpass, the World Bank’s president, to highlight the gravity of needs in the region and requested the organisation to step up its engagement.

The UK remains a major humanitarian donor to the East Africa region. In 2022 the UK has provided more than £72 million to support people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan affected by drought, conflict and flooding. This support includes £25 million for Somalia which I announced at a UN event in Geneva in April. This event helped to mobilise roughly US$400 million in new funding, with the UK playing a vital role in bringing stakeholders to the table.

Specifically on Ukraine, Vicky Ford said that, whilst the UK government was working with Ukraine, it remained Russia’s responsibility to lift the blockade:

The UK is working with Ukraine and international partners to help Ukraine export its food and play its role as the breadbasket of the world – the UN estimates that up to 25 million tonnes of grain destined for export remains in storage in Ukraine with its Black Sea ports blocked and road/rail capacity severely limited. It is President Putin’s responsibility to lift this blockade so that Ukraine’s food can feed the starving.

The blockade of Ukrainian ports was discussed at the meeting of G7 leaders and officials on 26 to 28 June 2022. In video remarks to the summit, UN Secretary General António Guterres reiterated that there was a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022, and that 2023 could be worse still. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also said assertions from Russia that Western sanctions imposed over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages were “completely untenable”. Similarly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “the sanctions that we’ve imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers”.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly told the summit that the UK was willing to offer expertise to create a safe passage for commercial vessels:

To support Ukrainian efforts to find and develop routes out of the country the UK is offering expertise to create a safe passage for commercial vessels. We are working with Ukraine, the UN and other international partners to find solutions to frustrate the Russian stranglehold, which can then be implemented by Ukraine and its international supporters.

Last week the Foreign and Defence Secretaries travelled to Türkiye for discussions with the Turkish Government on opening maritime export routes.

In addition to preventing grain from leaving Ukraine via the Black Sea – the route by which 96% of Ukraine’s grain has historically been exported, Russian attacks are disrupting rail exports.

To counteract this, the UK is contributing up to £10 million in materials and equipment to Ukraine Railways to repair rail infrastructure and help get grain out of the country by rail. The UK is in close discussion with the Government of Ukraine about how to maximise their rail capacity and keep both trains and grain moving.

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Cover image by tawatchai07 on Freepik.