He actually thought it couldn’t get any worse: Climate change with devastating droughts and supply problems caused by the pandemic threatened to starve millions of people last year. David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, warned of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. But now, he says at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, things have gotten much worse.
Because with the Russian war against Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world is failing. Experts and politicians warn of a global food crisis, of hunger in many parts of the world. For example, world market prices for wheat have risen sharply since the beginning of the war. That in itself would be a problem, but Beasley predicts that food shortages will also arise. Even before the war, an estimated 44 million people in 38 countries were on the brink of starvation. Now another 40 million could be added by the end of the year.
Everyone is talking about this humanitarian disaster at the World Economic Forum in Davos. So far there are no solutions, says Beasley, who came to the Swiss Alpine village to show the rich of the world how serious the situation is. Instead, Ukrainians are lobbying for more support in the fight against the Russian military.
Russia blames the West
The Kremlin, on the other hand, accuses the West of having caused the crisis itself with its sanctions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is not stopping Ukraine from exporting grain to Poland, for example by train. “And when it comes to sea transport, we are not the cause of the problem.” The cause is “those who have imposed sanctions against us and the sanctions themselves that work”.
On Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was ready to talk. According to the agency Interfax, he called for the sanctions to be lifted. In addition, Ukraine must mine all ports. But then Russia would be ready to secure a “humanitarian passage”.
Ukraine is one of the main agricultural exporters
Due to its fertile soil, Ukraine is one of the main wheat exporters in the world. In addition, there are large world market shares for barley, maize and sunflower oil. According to UN figures, more than 30 million tons of maize and nearly 25 million tons of wheat were harvested in 2020 alone. Ukraine and Russia together produce about one-eighth of the calories traded globally, according to a study.
Most of them are now in danger of failing. Because a lot of Ukrainian grain is shipped through the ports on the Black Sea. From there, the wheat went to Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, Ethiopia, Yemen and Lebanon, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh last year. These ports, especially Odessa, are now blocked by Russian troops. In Davos, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for negotiations on a corridor and clearance for export.
Millions of tons of grain are stored in Ukrainian silos
About 20 million tons of grain from the previous crop could not be shipped at this time, says former Ukrainian finance minister Natalie Jaresko. The Ukrainians have no more room in their silos. The new crop is in danger of rotting. But eventually the crisis will affect the whole world: food shortages will lead to unrest in many countries.
Several European politicians accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of deliberately using hunger as a weapon of war. “Russian troops are bombing Ukrainian fields, preventing sowing, looting food stocks, blocking Ukrainian ports, raising food and fertilizer prices,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock emphasized: “Russia is not only waging its brutal war with tanks, missiles and bombs. Russia is waging this war with another terrible and quieter weapon: hunger and deprivation.”
There are also crop failures elsewhere
According to Beasley, Ukraine alone could provide 400 million people with grain. That would be very important right now, because other granaries in the world are also failing. In China, the largest wheat producer, heavy rains have delayed sowing. Now there are corona lockdowns. There is a heat wave in India. It rained too little in the American grain belt. Climate change is also causing problems in Vietnam due to rising sea levels, says Deputy Prime Minister Le Minh Khai.
It is unlikely that other regions of the world will intervene – also because agriculture is becoming less and less profitable given rising fertilizer and energy prices. In many African countries, farmers can no longer afford the fertilizers that are so important there, causing their yields to fall painfully.
The United Arab Emirates’ climate and environment minister, Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, called for increased international cooperation in Davos. Countries such as Indonesia had responded to the increased prices with export bans for frying fat – but have since lifted them.
“Let’s try less meat too,” suggested Al Mheiri. Because large parts of the cultivated grain are used as animal feed. Also up for discussion: Using the land on which grain for biofuel is currently grown.