Every grain matters: why the world needs to unite on the Ukraine war

Viewed as a European conflict, its consequences on the rest of the world are already disastrous and far reaching

A field of grain crops on the outskirts of Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine. EPA
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When a dedicated YouTube channel for Ukrainian refugees in the UK was launched recently, there was only really one option for a name: Sunflower TV.

Ukraine’s sunflowers are a part of the nation’s identity. The oil that comes from the massive harvest each year – the biggest of its kind on the planet – is now foundational to a global food crisis. Rapidly spiralling shortages and price hikes in grains and oils are reverberating in every corner of the planet.

The Ukraine war maybe a conflict of Europe but as one senior Gulf official told me last week, its consequences are too important to be left to local initiatives.

A UN-led effort to free up the blockages in Ukraine’s grain exports is at the apex of overlapping initiatives. The idea is that ships could again start to carry cargo loads across the Black Sea from the Ukrainian ports.

To do that, a maritime de-mining strategy must be launched, concentrated particularly on the channels through Ukraine's hinterland that lead to the port of Odesa, one of the most important outlets for world food markets. Officials in Ukraine claim there is some progress in moving the stockpile of 22 million tonnes, derived from previous harvests, from the country’s silos.

The CSIS report warns that food was a weapon of this war from the outset

A number of alternative routes are being explored but these solutions so far create one simple dilemma: each is a more expensive undertaking than the Black Sea route. Another big question surrounds not just the past harvests held in abeyance before the war began four months ago. How much has the fighting impacted the Ukraine crops for 2022? Farmers even in the peaceful areas of the country cannot be immune.

In addition to this, the Washington think tank CSIS has released an extensive report showing that military operations are actively damaging the land. The collective of satellite images and analysis shows that farms in some of the most productive areas of the country have seen whole tracts destroyed by troop manoeuvres. Scorched earth tactics have been suspected.

Ukraine’s economy has been devastated. Oil supplies have been diverted. Fertiliser is way more expensive. Banks have run short of resources for working capital funding and loans to improve productivity. And confidence that conditions will be the same in five months after sowing when harvests come around has been lacking.

The satellite firm Maxar Technologies suggested last week that Ukraine’s overall crop could be reduced by 50 per cent in 2022 as a result of the disruption it has tracked. That is not so different from the figure provided by Ukraine’s agriculture ministry, which said there would a 40 per cent drop in production.

Some of the worst damage to the country’s expected yields was inflicted at the outset of the war when northern swathes of the country were invaded.

The Ukrainian military managed to repulse the Russian advance and the artillery has stopped firing in that area. It was too late for the farmers to regroup for this year and planting season was lost. The CSIS report warns that food was a weapon of this war from the outset.

That observation underlines the importance of the world speaking urgently with one voice about the conflict. It is not cost-free for any country. Both the rich Europeans and developing countries are suffering badly.

Energy prices are soaring, putting the political systems of too many countries through unforeseen crises and disintegration. The cost of living and, especially, eating is becoming unimaginably tough.

A week of diplomacy saw European leaders travel to Kyiv to provide overt support for the country at its toughest hour of need. Behind the scenes there was also frank discussions about the cost that they are bearing as the economies come under unheralded pressure.

It is not easy to weigh the various risks that face Ukraine’s allies and neighbours with the threat of annihilation that has been dumped on the country.

The case of the food crisis is a crisis for the UN-led international order. It has provided a crux point for the principle of universality. The World Trade Organisation held a series of meetings in which countries agreed not to restrict food exports.

What happens around Ukraine will be a key test of that small chink of progress, but any deal in Geneva will not be what makes a difference to grain shortage. If the war is prolonged, comparison will be made with the efforts to assert the principle of freedom of navigation in Asia and the Middle East.

There is a particular established set of treaties governing the Black Sea, but there is no reason why the current alliances could put this freedom of navigation rule to the test. As with much else in the war, the barriers to escalation are just broken. Weapons shipments have hogged the headlines. Sanctions are unprecedented. Political rhetoric is unhedged.

When it comes to food, talks need to turn into negotiations very quickly – or the scramble for supplies will supersede the war. As winter stores fail to fill up, the precious crops of both Ukraine and Russia are the telling prize of the conflict.

Published: June 20, 2022, 4:00 AM