The world’s population has reached eight billion, according to a UN announcement last November, and about 828 million people around the world are going to bed hungry. The number of people facing severe food insecurity has increased since 2019 from 135 to 345 million, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), a UN organisation focusing on providing food assistance globally.
Last October, WFP Executive Director David Beasley said that “the world is facing threats of mass starvation and global leaders must act and provide humanitarian support.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres also told world leaders at the G20 summit meeting held in Bali, Indonesia, recently that “we are on the way to a raging food catastrophe.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the world food situation, especially in Asia and Africa, and this has been followed by the Russian-Ukrainian war and Western decisions under the name of sanctions taken within the framework of the estrangement between the two sides with the aim of isolating Russia. This has also led to an increase in food prices, given that both the warring countries are important suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil.
Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, has blamed Russia’s war in Ukraine for the global shortage of food and fertilisers, which she says has led to increased prices for consumers and farmers around the world.
Last May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the war, initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, had caused a rise in food insecurity. Blinken said that food insecurity was already escalating before the war, but that it had been exacerbated due to Russia’s mining Ukrainian grain fields, attacking merchant shipping on the Black Sea, blocking Ukrainians from exporting their own grain, and plundering Ukrainian grain for its own profit.
He denied that US and Western sanctions against Russia have caused an increase in food insecurity around the world, saying that the US is keen not to exacerbate the food security situation, as the sanctions allow the export and re-export of food to and from Russia. “The United States has also pledged $2.6 billion this year in humanitarian food assistance to help alleviate world hunger, with an added $5 billion to be added over the next five years,” Blinken said.
In a report issued in April, the Research Service of the European Parliament denied that Western economic sanctions against Russia were the cause of the significant decline in exports and the production of basic commodities from both Russia and Ukraine. Stressing that the war against Ukraine had caused the problem, it said that the war had affected the global food supply. The report said that “Russia and Ukraine combined supply over 50 per cent of cereal imports in North Africa and the Middle East, while Eastern African countries import 72 per cent of their cereals from Russia and 18 per cent from Ukraine.”
Together, “they export nearly 12 per cent of food calories traded globally. They are major providers of basic agro-commodities, including wheat, maize and sunflower oil, and Russia is the world’s top exporter of fertilisers. Several regions are highly dependent on imports from these two countries for their basic food supply.” The report revealed widespread international concern that the Russian war could spark a global food crisis similar or worse than the one in 2007 and 2008.
“The war comes at a time when the global food system was already struggling to feed its growing population in a sustainable way under the pressure caused by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic,” the report said.
RUSSIAN ACCUSATIONS: Meanwhile, the Kremlin said last May that the Russian president “agreed with the United Nations assessment that the world is facing a food crisis that could cause famine,” but denied that the Russian intervention in Ukraine was the cause of this crisis, stressing that western sanctions against Russia were to blame.
President Putin in a meeting held with the Russian government last September blamed the sanctions imposed by the West against Russia for harming the global food market, revealing that the export of Russian grain and fertilisers is still facing complications that he considered to be threatening a global food crisis.
Putin also accused the Western countries of fuelling the global food crisis by obtaining Ukrainian grain and excluding poor countries from obtaining it. Pointing out that 203 cargo ships loaded with grain have left Ukrainian ports since the beginning of September, he said that only four of them had been heading for poorer countries.
As a result, the world is seeing mutual accusations of causing a global food crisis between the West and Russia, but neither side disagrees that such a crisis is taking place because of the tense relations between Russia and Ukraine in which the West intervened with military and material support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. Its sanctions then played a role in the worsening of the economic and food situation around the world.
The US and the countries of the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia aimed at limiting its economic and financial capacities and forcing it to stop its war in Ukraine. The sanctions include barring Russia from making debt payments using foreign currency held in US banks and the removal of major Russian banks from the international financial messaging system SWIFT. This has led to a delay in payments to Russia for its oil and gas exports.
According to a report published on the BBC website last September, the UK has excluded key Russian banks from the UK financial system, freezing the assets of all Russian banks, barred Russian firms from borrowing money, and placed limits on the deposits that Russians can make at UK banks. This is in addition to the EU’s banning the imports of Russian oil brought in by sea from December and the US banning all Russian oil and gas imports.
The report said that the Western sanctions have extended to Russian goods and services, including bans on the export of dual-use goods — items with both civilian and military purposes, such as vehicle parts — by the UK, the EU, and the US, and the banning of all Russian flights from US, UK, EU and Canadian airspace. There is a ban on the import of Russian gold and of the export of luxury goods to Russia. The UK also imposed a 35 per cent tax on some Russian imports, and a large number of companies have either suspended trading in Russia or withdrawn altogether.
Despite this Western economic pressure on Russia, the country has still been able to finance its war in Ukraine. Some researchers attribute this to the rise in oil and gas prices. According to the aforementioned BBC report, the Russian reaction to the Western sanctions has included its banning the export of more than 200 goods, including telecoms, medical, agricultural, and electrical equipment and timber products, and the blocking of interest payments to the foreign holders of Russian government bonds.
Russian firms are banned from paying overseas shareholders, and foreign investors who own billions of dollars in Russian investments have been stopped from selling them.
Nevertheless, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin made it clear in a press interview that Russia does not want to disrupt efforts to ensure global food security. He said that everything would continue under normal conditions regarding the grain deal in the Black Sea, which allows the export of particularly Ukrainian grain, if Western statements about exemptions from the sanctions imposed on Russian food exports are applied.
According to the website of the EU Council, “EU sanctions do not impact food security and cover only bilateral trade between the EU and Russia — not international trade.” It said that “EU sanctions explicitly exclude food supplies and fertilisers: there are no sanctions on Russian exports of food to global markets. Anyone can operate, buy, transport, ensure food and fertilisers coming out of Russia.”
The European website confirmed that the EU had applied some exceptions within its sanctions against Russia, among them the possibility of EU member states allowing Russian planes to fly across their airspace if such flights are important for humanitarian purposes. It also authorises European countries to grant Russian vessels access to EU ports and grant Russian route carriers the ability to enter the EU for the purpose of importing and transporting agricultural products, which are not subject to restrictions.
SPECIALIST STATEMENTS: Shami Yassin, director of Research on the Development of Economic Legislation in Algeria and Professor of Law at Dhofar University in the Sultanate of Oman, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Russian-Ukrainian war had affected global food circulation and that the western sanctions against Russia had exacerbated the global food crisis.
He said that the war differed from other wars in this regard because both Russia and Ukraine are active in ensuring global food security. They are major producers of wheat, barley, and corn, and they export nearly two-thirds of the world’s sunflower oil exports. Yassin said that Ukraine’s sunflower oil exports alone represent nearly half of world exports at 42 per cent, while Russia’s exports represent another 21 per cent.
He said that Russia is a major exporter of natural gas and the second-largest exporter of crude oil. Russia’s exports represent about 25 per cent of global natural gas exports and 18 per cent of coal exports. The country is responsible for about 14 per cent of world platinum exports, and it is also the world’s largest source of fertilisers, representing 14 per cent of the world’s export volumes, according to the UN.
Yassin predicted that the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war would lead to major economic shocks due to the increase in food and energy prices, and thus a rise in inflation amid low incomes and few job opportunities, all of which would contribute to the deterioration of levels of food security. He noted that oil prices are not expected to fall below $100 per barrel, leading to higher fertiliser and transportation costs affecting the supply of agricultural products.
He added that all countries will feel more pressure, but the most affected will be those that depend on imports of oil and natural gas and on importing food commodities from Russia and Ukraine, especially if they already suffer from severe levels of hunger and food insecurity. He said that the continent of Africa was the first to be affected by the food crisis, followed by countries that are already suffering the scourge of wars such as Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Gaza Strip, in addition to some countries in Latin America.
Food security in Europe will also be affected, he said, but this was likely to be gradual and less severe than in the aforementioned countries, due to the existence of a long-term vision to achieve European food security that the EU has previously pursued. In his interview with the Weekly, Yassin suggested that the UN intervene to resolve the crisis and bring dialogue between the two countries closer, creating humanitarian corridors between Russia and Ukraine to transport grain and energy to the most-affected countries. A greater role should be given to the WFP, he said, with the aim of finding other solutions, especially to help countries suffering from wars and the African countries that are already suffering from food-security problems.
At the same time, Hoda Al-Mallah, director of the International Centre for Economic Consultations and Economic Feasibility Studies, a think tank, confirmed in statements to the Weekly that the war between Russia and Ukraine has affected the world economy and global food security. This is because both countries, Russia to a greater extent, control the world’s food basket with regard to strategic grains such as wheat and soybeans, in addition to fodder and fertilisers that are indispensable in agriculture.
Russia also has a prominent role in energy production, specifically gas and oil, through its exports of liquefied natural gas to the EU. Al-Mallah said that the Western sanctions against Russia did not only affect that country, but also affected global food security because of Russia’s prominent role in supplying the world with food and farming needs. The sanctions had led to the withdrawal of large international companies from communications, energy, and other important areas of the Russian market, and this had affected Russian production, which in turn had affected global food security by weakening the Russian economy.
She said that it was not known what the future would hold in the wake of the current crisis, but she pointed to the need to find food alternatives given the difficult economic developments that may occur, especially because of the stubbornness between the western and Russian sides with no current prospect of serious solutions to the crisis. She said that Egypt’s Ministry of Supply has announced the cultivation of potatoes as a substitute for wheat, but that it has been unable to promote this, even though potatoes can be nutritionally more valuable than wheat.
It was necessary to resort to such alternatives in the light of the current dollar crisis in Egypt, she said, adding that Egypt needs to attract more foreign investment in agriculture, notably because there are commodities that it cannot currently supply in sufficient volumes owing to the scarcity of dollars. Al-Mallah pointed to the importance of finding solutions to the food crisis through greater economic integration between Egypt and the Arab countries.
She said that the decrease in the value of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar could be a competitive advantage as it would help Egypt to attract foreign investment. She added that China and Japan were also likely to choose a strategy of devaluation to attract greater foreign investment and that such a strategy in Egypt could leverage on the country’s other advantages such as its strategic location, the Suez Canal, strong infrastructure, and projects in renewable energy, green hydrogen, and a good relationship with the African countries.
The writer is a researcher in political science and managing editor of the Middle Eastern Visions Platform of the European Centre for Middle East Studies in Germany.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly