UN Aid Chief warns end of Ukraine grain deal means 'hunger or worse' for millions


 U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths speaks at a news conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sept 5, 2022. [AP Photo]

The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Friday that millions of people are at risk of hunger and death as a consequence of Russia's withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal.

"Some will go hungry, some will starve. Many may die as a result of these decisions," Martin Griffiths told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council convened to discuss the humanitarian impacts of Russia's announcement Monday that it is leaving the nearly year-old grain deal.

The initiative, negotiated by the United Nations and Turkey last July, and signed onto by Russia and Ukraine, has seen world food prices decrease 23% and stabilize after reaching highs following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The United Nations says 64% of almost 33 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain exported under the deal went to low- and middle-income countries, helping keep food affordable and available in the midst of a global cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel prices.

Since the deal ground to a halt on Monday, the World Food Program reports wheat futures have risen by almost 9% and corn futures by 8%. Wednesday saw the largest single-day increase in wheat prices since February 2022.

"And this is not surprising," Griffiths said. "This was predicted, and it happened."

He warned that with shrinking options for selling their grain, Ukrainian farmers may have no choice but to stop farming. The country was an international breadbasket before the conflict, supplying 400 million metric tons of grain and foodstuffs to world markets annually.

Ports targeted

This week, Russia’s military has also resumed targeting Ukraine's ports. For four consecutive days, it has hit Odesa, Chornomorsk and Mykolaiv ports with missiles and drones, destroying critical infrastructure, facilities and 60,000 metric tons of grain. WFP says that is enough grain to feed 270,000 people for a year.

"We strongly condemn these attacks and urge Russia to stop them immediately," U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council.

Russia has also announced it will consider any ships in the Black Sea as carrying military cargo and, therefore, legitimate targets. This stance was reiterated by its envoy.

"The flagged states will be deemed to be complicit in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime," Dmitry Polyanskiy said of the countries where the ships are registered.

The U.N. political chief said such threats are "unacceptable."

The Russian representative claimed that Ukraine has used the grain deal as cover to beef up its military-industrial storage capacities at the Black Sea ports.

"With the end of the deal, we have an opportunity to address this situation, and to consider the fact that Ukrainian infrastructure is located there as a place of deployment for replenishment for Ukrainian forces with Western weapons," Polyanskiy said.

As part of the grain deal, ships entering and exiting the Black Sea corridor underwent inspections by a joint team of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. inspectors near Istanbul in order to ensure no military cargo was aboard the vessels.

Russia's rationale for departing the deal is that it has not benefited enough under it, an explanation that some countries saw as cynical.

"By blocking exports from Ukrainian ports and prompting an increase in agricultural and food prices, Russia is increasing the profits from its own exports," said France's ambassador, Nicolas De Riviere. "It is increasing its revenues to finance its war of aggression against Ukraine. This is the reality. Russia is seeking to play the victim and claim to have been swindled with the Istanbul agreements."

Record Russian exports

The European Union envoy said public data shows Russian grain exports have reached record volumes.

"From 1 July 2022 to 30 June 2023, Russia's wheat exports reached 44.7 million tons, more than 10% higher than the average for previous years," Ambassador Olof Skoog said. "Its fertilizer exports are nearing full recovery."

The U.S.-based International Food Policy Research Institute said in a paper released Thursday that global production of wheat and feed grains, including corn, should be sufficient to meet global demand this year, even without Ukrainian products.

But with Black Sea routes closed to its exports, Ukraine will have to find alternatives, which will be expensive. And without lower-cost options, Ukrainian wheat and corn production would likely drop next year. Add to that the damage to its export infrastructure, and IFPRI experts say that would significantly affect short-term global grain availability and further disrupt Ukraine's longer-term ability to grow and export grain.