21 March 2023

The West must stand up to Putin’s weaponisation of food exports

By Oleksii Goncharenko

The world is facing severe food shortages. Conflicts, climate change and the lingering effects of Covid-19 are having a pronounced impact on both local and global food systems and all those who depend on them.

Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine has significantly increased these challenges and vulnerabilities. Ukraine, with its famously fertile soil, is one of the world’s major grain producers. Indeed, according to the European Commission, Ukraine accounts for 10% of the world wheat market, 15% of the corn market, and 13% of the barley market. With more than 50% of world trade, it is also the leading player in the sunflower oil market. In 2020, more than 57 million metric tons of grain were exported, much of which passed through the ports of the Black Sea. 

For centuries, the Black Sea was a hub of economic activity, connecting the East and West through trade routes that spanned continents. The ancient Greeks established colonies along its shores and used it as a gateway to the Mediterranean and beyond. Later, during the Middle Ages, the Black Sea was a critical trade route for the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. It also became an important battleground during World War I and World War II.

Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some 20 million tonnes of grain had been stored in the port city of Odesa, where the majority of Ukraine’s wheat, corn, and sunflower oil were exported through its Black Sea ports. Despite its historical significance, the Black Sea had been largely overlooked in recent times, but Russia’s full-scale invasion and subsequent blockade has brought the importance of Black Sea back to the forefront of international awareness.

The invasion caused significant economic hardship for Ukraine and the ‘ecocide’ of 600 species of animals and 880 species of plants, as well as a huge reduction in available arable land. The Black Sea’s potential as a trade route has been severely compromised, with ports seized by the Russians and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure. Russia has also used the blockade of the Black Sea to weaponise food supplies, fueeling food shortages and soaring prices in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Despite the opening of so-called ‘Solidarity Lanes’, established as alternative logistics routes through Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, there is currently no substitute for exports through the ports of Odesa. We simply can’t export the same volume of goods across our western land borders, where bottlenecks persist and logistical costs are high. According to one grain industry boss, shipping a ton of grain to Poland or Romania costs around $30, compared to about $130 by road.

Exporting by train also presents particular challenges. Ukrainian trains are not compatible with most of the EU rail network, so goods must be moved to carriages that fit the EU standard gauge. This process is time-consuming and facilities along the borders are scarce. All of which makes finding a solution to the impasse in the Black Sea all the more urgent.

Last July’s so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative, mediated by Turkey and the UN, was an attempt to move things forward, although it initially only lasted 120 days. The agreement covers three ports in the Odesa region and let ships cross the Black Sea in specially de-mined corridors. Merchant vessels were then required to go to Turkey for inspection. However, the agreement provides neither for the escort of Ukrainian vessels by Russian ships nor for the easing of sanctions against Russia overall.

Once the initiative expired in November, Russia once again resorted to food blackmail and suspended its participation in the agreement, before international pressure got the deal extended for a further 120 days. As of early March 2023, more than 900 ships have successfully left Ukrainian ports carrying over 20 million tonnes of grain and other food products.

Not that that has stopped Russia continuing to undermine food exports and the smooth functioning of the deal. Since the first days of the invasion, Odesa has been constantly shelled by Russian troops. Energy infrastructure bombings have caused several disruptions in the operation of ports. In December, for instance, Odesa’s port had to halt its operational activities because of blackouts. Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure notes that Ukraine exported 25% less agricultural products through the ‘grain corridor’ in January than in December due to Russian inspectors deliberately delaying ships in the Bosphorus. In February only two or three ships were leaving Ukrainian ports every day.

Now, approaching the end of March it is time to not only make sure the grain deal continues, but expand it.

Firstly, the initiative has to be continued indefinitely, regardless of when the war ends. The expansion of the Black Sea Grain initiative to other ports, in particular to the Mykolaiv and Olvia ports in the Mykolaiv region, is vital to long-term food security.

Secondly, all commercial activity through the Black Sea ports must be restored. As Ukrainian agricultural groups have made clear, the import of mineral fertilisers is particularly important to safeguard the production of agricultural crops in 2023. That means that free commercial shipping in the Black Sea region has to be secured as a matter of urgency. 

Another key step is to invest in the infrastructure of the Black Sea ports and the surrounding region, which has been undermined by Russia’s repeated attacks. This could involve building new ports or expanding existing ones, improving road and rail links, and investing in technology and equipment to facilitate the efficient movement of goods.

We cannot overstate the importance of getting Ukraine’s agriculture and food exports back up and running as soon as possible. The Black Sea, and Odesa in particular, are crucial to global food supplies, and further disruption means higher prices worldwide and the risk of severe food crises. Only a strong, united international response to Putin’s dangerous weaponisation of food supplies will do.

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Oleksii Goncharenko is the MP for Odesa.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.