When EU Council President Charles Michel visited Odesa on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky highlighted the importance for the rest of Ukraine’s major Black Sea port as a vital gateway for the world’s food supply.
“For the first time in decades and decades, in Odesa there is no regular movement of the merchant fleet,” Zelensky said by video. “This has probably never happened in Odesa since World War II.”
“This is a blow not only to Ukraine,” Zelensky emphasised. “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. And over time, the situation can become – frankly – frightening.”
Adding to Zelensky’s message, Michel wrote on Twitter that he had seen silos full of grain, wheat and corn in Odesa – ready for export but unable to be moved due to the blockade.
“This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian war and blockade of Black Sea ports. Causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries. We need a global response,” he wrote.
Indeed, nearly 25 million tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine, a UN food agency official said on May 6.
The bright yellow below the sky blue in the Ukrainian flag is mirrored in the country’s fertile fields. Ukraine provided 42 percent of the world’s sunflower oil exports in 2019 – aptly, as the sunflower is an iconic national symbol. The country also provided 16 percent of the world’s corn exports the same year, nearly 10 percent of its barley exports and almost 9 percent of its wheat exports.
‘Seaways are not safe’
Since it invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russia has blocked hundreds of ships in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, mostly containing Ukrainian grain exports. This has combined with heavy mining to stop ships from exporting food supplies via Odessa.
Odesa port has not been active since Russia started the conflict, because the “seaways are not safe”, noted Petr Oubukhov, a member of the Odesa City Council, speaking on FRANCE 24’s The Debate programme. “Some commercial vessels were hit by [the] Russians; it was not Ukrainian vessels, it was one from Qatar and one from Japan. And also the sea near Odesa now has a lot of sea mines, so it’s not safe to go this area.”
“Even if we stop the war today, we need at least half of [a] year to clean the sea and to activate this port again,” Oubukhov went on.
As well as Russia’s well-known use of gas exports as a geopolitical tool, it seems that stopping Ukrainian food exports via Odesa is a way of hurting Europe – as Ukraine is the EU’s fourth biggest source of food imports, providing more than half of the bloc’s corn imports and nearly a quarter of its vegetable oil imports.
Russia’s actions show how “food is a weapon; a geopolitical weapon” and how “food systems are now very co-dependent”, Mathieu Brun, scientific director of agriculture-focused think-tank the FARM Foundation, said on The Debate.
‘Burden is going to fall on the poorest’
Although Moscow doesn’t see them as antagonists in the way it does European nations, Middle Eastern and African countries are even more vulnerable to the effects of the Ukraine war on their food supply.
“This goes back to the last time that there was global food insecurity of this magnitude [in the late 2000s], which ended up [with] very dysfunctional actions by a number of governments, and the worst of which was export controls by a number of the prominent food exporters – now that is globally suboptimal; everybody ends up worse off,” Sony Kapoor, a professor of climate at the European University Institute in Oslo, said on The Debate.
“This time round, even in these early days of food price spikes, we’ve already seen a number of governments such as that of Indonesia announce unilateral actions blocking food exports and many others potentially to follow,” Kapoor added. “Now this is not going to be good for anybody because globally – despite the serious logistical challenges we’ve been discussing – from a calorific viewpoint, there is more than enough food, it is just in the wrong places, and if export bans are put in place, the burden is going to fall on the poorest.”
Asked if it is possible to just ramp up production elsewhere, allowing global food markets to adjust, Brun warned that “it’s not that easy”.
Quite simply, the amount of food Ukraine was exporting through the Black Sea was “a lot”, Brun explained, “and we have been actually specialising our food systems, our agriculture systems, for decades, almost centuries, now; there are regions that are specialising in wheat, others are specialising in soybean, so there is a lot of concentration, and you cannot just, over a year, change that.”
To adequately adjust, “you need research, you need seeds, you need fertiliser inputs, and you need logistics,” Brun continued.
Polish land corridor
Consequently, the EU is working on the logistics of circumventing Russia’s blockage – with the bloc’s Farm Commissioner Janusz Wojciechozski announcing on Tuesday plans to create a land corridor to Poland for Ukraine’s agricultural exports. “We want to ensure supply chains for food for Europe and the rest of the world,” he told a conference held by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“The main solution is corridors to Baltic Sea ports,” Wojciechozski said – pointing to Poland’s Gdansk and Gdynia as gateways to export food supplies from Ukraine to the rest of the world.
The EU commissioner’s plan is likely to “work”, but “very slowly”, Oubukhov said. “I heard that they would take five years to transfer all the grains and seeds that we have already in Ukraine, which we normally sold by sea in one year.”
The Russian military has targeted Ukrainian transport infrastructure throughout the war. But this is unlikely to hinder the planned land route to Poland for agricultural exports, Oubukhov said: Russian strikes are not “as precise” as “they advertise”, he put it. They try to “attack our military objects and most of times they miss” – one time even missing by “two kilometres”. Even if they strike railway infrastructure, it could “easily be rebuilt in hours, not days”.
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