Putin just made the global food crisis even worse

President Vladimir Putin at a podium marked Russia-Africa St. Petersburg 2023.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia addresses the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg on Thursday. (Sputnik/Pavel Bednyakov/Pool/ Reuters)

Earlier this month, Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an emergency deal brokered between the United Nations and Turkey that allowed vital exports such as wheat and fertilizer to be shipped out of war-torn Ukraine.

Speaking at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin claimed that Western countries were “obstructing” his agricultural exports and blamed them for the global food “crisis.” The Kremlin had previously claimed that the deal had only benefited Ukraine and that Russian exports had been blocked from foreign markets because of Western sanctions.

“Africa is suffering negative consequences from this conflict,” Chadian politician Moussa Faki Mahamat told Putin.

‘Beacon of hope’

Three combine harvesters at work in a field.

Combines harvest wheat in Russia’s Rostov region on July 18. (Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters)

Nearly 30% of the world’s wheat comes from the fertile fields of Ukraine and Russia, while 75 of the essential oils used in cooking and preparing food are also produced there. The agreement, which came into force in July last year, was created to alleviate the worsening global food crisis, which had been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The 2023 Global Report on Food Crises found that there had been a 33% increase in the number of people facing hunger in the world in 2022 compared to the year before.

The majority of the wheat exported through the Black Sea was sent to developing countries that had been suffering a series of crises. According to data from the U.N. World Food Program, Ethiopia, Yemen and Afghanistan had received 600,000 tons of humanitarian shipments of wheat since last August. The head of the U.N. described the deal at the time as “a beacon of hope.”

‘Dire consequences’

A technician takes the upper arm measurement, 8 centimeters, of a malnourished child wearing a disposable diaper that is far too large.

A health worker measures the arm of a malnourished child at a treatment center in the Khokha district of Hudaydah province in western Yemen on Wednesday. (Khaled Ziad/AFP/Getty Images)

Harpinder Collacott, Mercy Corps’ European executive director, told Yahoo News that since its creation, the initiative had delivered roughly 32 million tons of food, enough to feed 150 million people for a year.

Now that Russia has backed out of the deal and stopped the export of crucial food and fertilizer supplies, it is those who are most in need who face the most dire consequences.

“Ukraine is the world’s breadbasket. In the mid- to long term, we could see major increases in the price of food commodities,” Anne Garella, regional director of operations for Action Against Hunger in Ukraine, told Yahoo News. “If the suspension of the deal lasts, there could be a potential impact on food price inflation, and therefore on the world’s access to food.”

Read more on the collapse of the grain deal from Yahoo News

On the day after the deal collapsed on July 17, the price on global markets for wheat and corn rose by at least 5%. For those already living in poverty, the increase in prices will have disastrous knock-on effects.

“Some will go hungry, some will starve, many may die as a result of these decisions,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, told the Security Council on July 21.

Capitalizing on the collapse

A long line of Afghan women in full-length robes and head coverings waits by a warehouse.

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 28. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

According to Collacott, it is estimated that 345 million people are facing hunger.

“This is going to hit countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya particularly hard, because these are the countries that are already seeing prolonged drought,” she said. Approximately 20% of the population of Africa, around 278 million people, are estimated to face hunger. “In a country like Somalia, over 90% of its wheat supply comes from Ukraine,” she added.

On Thursday, Putin was accused of capitalizing on the collapse of the grain deal after he offered free grain to six African nations.

“In the coming months, we will be ready to provide Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea with 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain, free of charge,” Putin said at the summit in St. Petersburg.

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