The world can stave off Putin’s food battle

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Russian forces have shelled grain silos and farms and looted Ukrainian wheat, which US diplomats say Moscow is now trying to sell. Ukraine’s Black Sea ports are blocked with mines to protect the coastline from attacks by the Russian Navy, which is also bottling shipments. And yet, if President Vladimir Putin is to be believed, Western selfishness and sanctions are to blame for the current price-spiking food crisis – not Russia’s invasion of one of the largest world exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

Putin is trying to blackmail the West into lifting the punitive measures, and that’s normal. But more worrying is the Kremlin’s amplification of the lie that rich nations meddle and punish without caring about poorer ones. People in the emerging world are already skeptical of Western motives, not to mention high sensitivity to rising food prices, and its governments fear that the combination of pandemic scarring and expensive shopping baskets will lead to protests. “The conflict is in Europe, but the implications and the damage are global,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a security briefing in Singapore over the weekend, in a speech that highlighted the risks to come with a pointed reference to the unrest in Sri Lanka and soaring inflation in Pakistan.

Spotting an opportunity to divide, the Kremlin is stoking those concerns and spreading mistrust at a time when Ukraine desperately needs practical support, and a broader coalition is essential to isolate Russia economically. A more assertive food diplomacy is long overdue.

Wealthy nations sanctioning Russia must clearly recognize that the concern over world hunger is not unfounded – freedom is not free – and confront the question of the costs, as well as the reason for bearing them. in terms that will resonate. Russia is waging a war of conquest against a country it considers a colony, something familiar to many in the emerging world. As President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told that same Singapore audience, quoting Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, “if big fish ate small fish and small fish ate prawns,” many would be vulnerable.

But rich nations can also defuse some of the panic: the problem here is not scarcity, but access and price. They should support Ukraine in its urgent efforts to get grain and other piled goods out of the country, whether by land or sea, while preparing to provide support to farmers and buyers if it becomes too costly for them. be achievable. The international community must simultaneously reduce trade and other barriers for food and inputs, ensuring (particularly for fertilizers) that excessive non-compliance with sanctions does not make a bad situation worse.

The problem, of course, is that this war is between two countries that are among the world’s largest food exporters – and Russia and Ukraine supply the world’s poorest countries in particular, which depend on this wheat for a large part of their caloric intake. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the two countries accounted for almost a third of global wheat exports last year. Eritrea bought all of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021, while Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, supplied most of its needs there. Russia (along with its ally Belarus) is also a major producer of fertilizers, which means that other food exporters are in turn affected by its vicissitudes – not to mention that it is a major exporter. of oil and gas, again pushing everything from transportation to nitrogen fertilizer even higher. .

Worse still, the invasion came at a time when food prices had already been on the rise for almost two years, thanks to Covid-19, high energy, logistics and fertilizer costs, as well as to climatic disturbances. The FAO Food Price Index, which tracks the world’s most traded commodities, hit a record high in March. This made poor countries even more vulnerable and drained foreign currency.

Putin knows he can use basic food supplies and necessary inputs as weapons to inflict pain on Ukraine. He has already hit agricultural targets and his troops have made it impossible to supply starving towns like Mariupol. It brought back memories of the brutal famine inflicted on Ukraine under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in his efforts to suppress nationalism and cultural autonomy.

But Russia’s position is even more potent as a means to coerce Ukraine’s allies into a Faustian pact that would trade fertilizers and agricultural products for reduced sanctions – and squeeze them further using the Global South. . We can’t give Putin that space.

Allied nations must counter both Putin and hunger with significant financial support. Initiatives such as the Food Import Financing Facility proposed by the FAO will go some way to easing a global food import bill that will rise by $51 billion this year, $49 billion of which reflects higher prices. It can and should be expanded – with the good news spread around the world. Supporting countries’ finances is also important, as are social safety nets and ultimately humanitarian aid. An unequal burden must be shared.

Then there is the need for both Ukraine and global markets to release the millions of metric tons of grain trapped in the country. Vital efforts to use land routes and unblock ports are underway, but as David Laborde, senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out, land routes are slow and expensive, while the alternative The maritime route is complex, especially since the risk that any escalation there will endanger other Black Sea routes still in service. The goal, according to him, cannot be to get the grain out at all costs – if there are more effective ways to support buyers and Ukrainians.

It is also vital to keep markets open. That means encouraging countries not to put up barriers and loosen biofuel mandates, but also to make sure that sanctions don’t bite where they shouldn’t – hence the US efforts to encourage shipping companies to transport Russian fertilizers. Increased legal and technical support can help shippers, bankers and insurers navigate current exclusions.

Other solutions will serve the world well beyond this year and next, including providing better information to farmers on more efficient use of crop nutrients, promoting domestic fertilizer production and diversifying crops and consumption to secure supplies – because the war in Ukraine has escalated a food crisis that climate change promises to make even worse.

Putin may have started this food fight, but it’s a fight the rest of the world can still win.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

The Harsh Lessons of the War in Ukraine: Leonid Bershidsky

Time to get biofuels out of your gas tank: David Fickling

• The global food system is too dependent on wheat: Jessica Fanzo

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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