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Calls mount for Russia to unblock Ukrainian ports to prevent ‘catastrophic’ hunger crisis

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Group of Seven foreign ministers have appealed to Russia to liberalize shipping routes for Ukraine’s grain and agricultural products essential to feeding the world, with food prices soaring and the World Food Program warning of “catastrophic” consequences if Ukrainian ports remain closed.

We must not be naive. Russia has now expanded the war against Ukraine to include many countries as a grain war, German Foreign Minister Annalena Barbock said in a press conference on Saturday after the G7 meetings. “It’s not collateral damage, it’s a tool in hybrid warfare designed to weaken cohesion against the Russian war.”

Barbock, who hosted the three-day meeting of top diplomats in Weissenhaus, Germany, said the group was looking at alternative ways to transport grain from Ukraine as the threat of a global hunger crisis mounts.

Barbock said that up to 50 million people will face starvation in the coming months unless Ukrainian grain is released. According to the Associated Press,. About 28 million tons of grain stuck in the Ukrainian ports besieged by Russian forces.

As the conflict in Ukraine continued, some countries looked to India as an alternative source of grain. But after taking steps to expand the agricultural export industry, India on Friday Banned wheat exportsciting her food security concerns.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, it has nearly captured the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have surrounded the last remaining Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal steel plant.

Russia also took control of the Kherson region on the Black Sea and fired missiles at the main port of Odessa, which is still under Ukrainian control. Ukraine closed its ports in late February amid the fighting, and Russian warships and floating mines prevented their opening.

The Ukrainian wheat crop, which feeds the world, cannot leave the country

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that such a halt to port operations had likely not been seen in Ukraine since World War II. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that Ukraine was ready to participate in talks with Russia to cancel the grain supply ban, but his government had not received “any positive feedback” from officials in Moscow, The Associated Press reported.

David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Program, spoke with US lawmakers and Biden administration officials in Washington this week to stress the urgency of reopening ports and addressing the global food crisis.

Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people a year, and 30 percent of the world’s wheat supply comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to the World Food Program.

“Ports are critical to food security globally,” Beasley told the Washington Post. “It would be catastrophic if those ports were not opened and food supplies moved around the world.”

On an average working day, about 3000 train cars are loaded with grain Beasley said it reaches Ukrainian ports, where it is stored in silos and, in peacetime, shipped through the Black Sea and Bosphorus Strait and then around the world. With exports banned, the silos have filled up – meaning there is nowhere to store grain from the next harvest, scheduled for July and August.

The effect of the blockage will be felt in both rich and poor countries, Beasley said, and it is already affecting market volatility. The war has pushed the prices of wheat, cooking oil and other commodities to record levels, and the US Department of Agriculture has forecast that global wheat supplies will fall for next year’s crop.

The countries of the Middle East and Africa are particularly dependent on Ukrainian grain. According to United Nations statistics, Egypt gets between 75 and 85 percent of its wheat needs from Ukraine and Russia. More than 60 percent of the wheat imported by Lebanon comes from Ukraine. Somalia and Benin depend on Russia and Ukraine for all their wheat imports.

The United Nations has warned that food insecurity could exacerbate existing conflicts and economic crises in these regions.

Tunisia is among the countries that experienced significant economic consequences from the war in Ukraine

Beasley said the operational costs of the World Food Program to help the same number of people have increased by more than $70 million per month due in part to higher food prices. The programme, which provides food aid to 125 million people on any given day, will have to reduce their rations further. In Yemen, which has suffered from a severe hunger crisis for years, WFP has already halved food rations for 8 million people.

“We’re running out of money, pricing is killing us, we’re short on billions and now we have to decide which kids eat, which kids don’t eat, which kids live, which kids die,” Beasley said.

The World Food Program, which buys half of its wheat from Ukraine, has asked Congress for $5 billion in additional international food aid. An emergency funding package for Ukraine containing that aid was approved in the House of Representatives Tuesday night, but a vote in the Senate was pushed back to next week.

Russia intensified its missile attacks on Odessa this week, raising new concerns about the port’s security. In a statement on Saturday, the G7 foreign ministers called on Russia to “immediately cease its attacks on Ukraine’s key transport infrastructure, including ports.”

Beasley, who visited Odessa this month as the city came under attack, said it was encouraging that the Russian attacks had not yet targeted the actual port infrastructure there.

Russia, which is also a major grain producer and the world’s largest wheat exporter, will benefit from the continued disruption of Ukrainian exports. G7 ministers pledged on Saturday that sanctions against Russia would not “target essential exports of food and agricultural inputs to developing countries.”

The Group of Seven consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The countries also promised to intensify their contributions to the World Food Program and other relief organizations.

Ukraine also accused Russia of deliberately attacking Ukrainian grain facilities and stealing grain from occupied areas for export. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Post that the Russian attacks damaged at least six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Beasley said he was “calling every friend I know who has any influence with Russia” to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow grain shipments from Ukraine to resume.

On Saturday, G7 ministers said they are looking at other options to get Ukrainian grain to countries in need, including creating “agricultural solidarity corridors”. The European Commission developed a plan On Thursday, to create such transport corridors, which will facilitate the road shipment of Ukrainian grain to Europe.

Beasley said trucks and trains can only carry a fraction of the grain normally shipped from Ukraine’s ports. Russia continues to attack train lines and transport infrastructure across Ukraine. But Barbook said on Saturday The Financial Times reports that “every ton we can get out will help a little bit to get this hunger crisis under control”.

“In the situation we are in, every week counts,” Barbock said.

Victoria Bisset and John Hudson contributed to this report.