The blockade of grain exports from Ukraine could lead to a “catastrophic scenario” of rising prices and food shortages in Africa, European leaders heard on Tuesday.
Macky Sall, chairman of the African Union and president of Senegal, spoke of a worrying food crisis and said “the worst may be ahead of us”, in an address to the European Union as it discussed the fallout of the war.
Mr Sall said fertiliser prices had trebled since last year and that grain yields in Africa were poised to slump by between 20 and 50 per cent this year. Ukraine and Russia are two of the world’s biggest agricultural producers and the war has brought exports via the Black Sea to a standstill.
An EU official said Mr Sall had expressed a desire to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the crisis, after African leaders urged him to contact the Kremlin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Mr Sall called on Europe and Africa to speak with one voice at a time when the Kremlin is pointing the finger at western sanctions for the food crisis, the official said.
But the African leader told EU presidents and prime ministers that sanctions against international payments system Swift were making it more complicated to buy food.
Western leaders reject the Russian narrative and say Moscow is responsible for bringing food exports to a halt by bombarding Ukrainian warehouses and blocking its Black Sea ports.
“This crisis affects our countries particularly because of their strong dependency on Russian and Ukrainian wheat production,” said Mr Sall, according to a written copy of his remarks.
“We want everything to be done to free the available cereal stocks and ensure transportation and access to the market, to avoid the catastrophic scenario of shortages and widespread price rises.”
UN agencies have spoken of alarming food insecurity resulting from the war. The World Food Programme has said it is rationing supplies to displaced people, and the EU blames the crisis for runaway bread prices in Lebanon.
EU leaders were discussing ways to unblock Ukraine’s ports at their meeting in Brussels. Ukraine has rejected as blackmail a Russian demand that western sanctions be lifted before it can release its own food stocks to ease shortages.
European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc was “sparing no efforts” to find alternative export routes.
“Russia is using food as a weapon of war,” he said, by “destroying crops, blocking tonnes of grain, risking global famine.”
The leaders of Germany and France on Saturday said they had won assurances from Mr Putin that Russia would not exploit a gap in Ukraine’s defences if shipping corridors are established on the Black Sea.
Talks on food security came alongside discussions about energy and defence in the wake of Russia's invasion. The EU late on Monday agreed to block Russian oil imports by sea.