Clara Ferreira Marques

The World Can Stave Off Putin’s Food Fight

Russian forces have bombed grain silos and farms and plundered Ukrainian wheat, which US diplomats say Moscow is now trying to sell on. Ukraine’s Black Sea ports are blocked by mines to protect the shoreline from attack by Russia’s navy, which is also bottling up shipments. And yet, if President Vladimir Putin is to be believed, Western selfishness and sanctions are to blame for the current food crisis that is driving up prices — not Russia’s invasion of one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil.

Putin is attempting to blackmail the West into lifting punitive measures, and that’s to be expected. But more worrying is the Kremlin’s amplification of the lie that rich nations are meddling and punishing with no concern for the poorest. In the emerging world, populations are already skeptical of Western motives, not to mention highly sensitive to rising food costs, and its governments fear that the combination of pandemic scars and expensive shopping baskets will lead to protests. “The conflict is in Europe, but the implications and damage are global,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a security gathering in Singapore this weekend, in a speech that underlined the risks ahead with pointed reference to Sri Lanka’s unrest and Pakistan’s soaring inflation.

Spotting an opportunity to divide, the Kremlin is stoking these concerns and spreading distrust at a time when Ukraine is in desperate need of practical support, and a wider coalition is essential to isolate Russia economically. More assertive food diplomacy is overdue.

Wealthy nations sanctioning Russia must make clear they recognize that the concern over global hunger is not unfounded — freedom is not free — and confront the question of costs, along with the reason for bearing them in terms that will resonate. Russia is fighting a war of conquest against a country it sees as a colony, something familiar to many in the emerging world. As President Volodymyr Zelenskiy put it to that same Singapore audience, quoting Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, “if the big fish ate the small fish and the small fish ate shrimps” many would be vulnerable.

But wealthy nations can also defuse some of the panic: The issue here is not shortage, but access and price. They must support Ukraine in its urgent efforts to get grain and other piled-up products out of the country, whether through land or sea, while also preparing to provide support for farmers and buyers if that becomes too costly to be practicable. The international community must simultaneously keep trade and other barriers down for food products and inputs, making sure (in particular for fertilizer) that over-compliance with sanctions does not make a bad situation worse.

The problem, of course, is that this war is between two countries which are among the world’s largest food exporters — and Russia and Ukraine supply in particular the world’s poorer nations, who depend on that wheat for much of their calorie intake. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the two countries accounted for nearly a third of the world’s wheat exports last year. Eritrea bought all its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021, while Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, sourced most of its needs there. Russia (along with ally Belarus) is also a major fertilizer producer, which means other food exporters are in turn affected by its vicissitudes — not to mention that it’s a major exporter of oil and gas, again pushing everything from transport to nitrogen fertilizer higher still.

Worst of all, the invasion came at a time when food prices had already been on the rise for the best part of two years, thanks to Covid-19, high energy, logistics and fertilizer costs, plus climate disruptions. FAO’s food price index, which tracks the most globally traded commodities, hit a record in March. It’s left poor countries even more vulnerable, and foreign exchange drained.

Putin knows he can use basic food supply and the inputs for it as weapons to inflict pain in Ukraine. He has already hit agricultural targets and his troops have made it impossible to get supplies to starving towns like Mariupol. It’s brought back memories of the brutal famine inflicted on Ukraine under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in his effort to tamp down nationalism and cultural autonomy.

But Russia’s position is even more powerful as a means of forcing Ukraine’s allies into a Faustian pact that would swap fertilizers and agricultural products for a reduction in sanctions — and of pressing them further by using the Global South. Putin can’t be given that space.

Allied nations must counter both Putin and hunger with meaningful financial support. Initiatives like the FAO’s proposed Food Import Financing Facility will go some way to soften a global food import bill that will rise by $51 billion this year, of which $49 billion reflects higher prices. It can and should be expanded — with the good news broadcast around the world. Supporting countries’ finances matters too, as do social safety nets and, ultimately, humanitarian aid. An unequal burden must be shared.

Then there’s the need, as much for Ukraine as for world markets, to free the millions of metric tons of grain trapped in the country. Vital efforts to use land routes and to unblock the ports are underway, but as David Laborde, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out, land routes are slow and costly, while the maritime alternative is complex, not least given the risk that any escalation there would endanger other Black Sea routes still working. The point, as he argues, cannot be to get the grain out at any cost — if there are more effective ways to support buyers and Ukrainians.

It is also vital to keep markets open. That means encouraging countries not to put up barriers and to ease biofuel mandates, but also ensuring that sanctions don’t bite where they shouldn’t — so US efforts to encourage shipping companies to carry Russian fertilizer matter. More legal and technical support can help shippers, bankers and insurers navigate the current carve-outs.

Other solutions will serve the world well beyond this year and next, including providing better information to farmers on the more efficient use of crop nutrients, promoting the domestic production of fertilizers and diversifying crops and consumption to secure supply — because the war in Ukraine has intensified a food crisis that climate change promises to make even worse.

Putin may have started this food fight, but it’s one that the rest of the world can still win.