New ideas but no easy answers as G7 tackles food crisis

Leaders call for fewer biofuels, more African production and an investigation into suspected Russian theft

The standstill in Black Sea cargo is blamed by G7 leaders for an escalating food crisis. Bloomberg
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The G7 countries put new ideas on the table this week to ease an alarming global food crisis, but an agreement to restart grain shipments from Ukraine’s blockaded Black Sea ports remained elusive.

Tackling the hunger crisis is central to the G7’s desire to appear a force for good at a time of food shortages and other global problems, especially as Russia spins the counter-narrative that western sanctions are to blame.

But many of the world’s poorest people and children are still at risk of starvation despite an increase in Ukrainian grain exports, via road, rail or river barges, which only partly makes up for the Black Sea standstill.

And there are facts of geography and history that can hardly change overnight: Ukraine has no other coastline, most of its neighbours are landlocked or hostile and its Soviet railways are incompatible with those to the west.

The G7 leaders promised at their three-day summit to “spare no effort” to solve the crisis and made some new suggestions to ease the problem, but some are unlikely to find consensus or bear immediate fruit.

While negotiations on unblocking the Black Sea continue, “people need this food now and time is running out,” European Council President Charles Michel said, at the G7’s mountain retreat in Germany.

Vaccine drive reloaded

An idea floated by the EU on the second day of talks was to increase fertiliser production in Africa, reducing its reliance on slow imports from Ukraine and Russia.

EU officials compared the project to vaccine production during the coronavirus pandemic, when rich countries accused of hoarding doses sought to foster home-grown manufacturing in Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, a guest at the G7 talks, echoed that message by saying Africa should become more self-reliant in fertiliser production.

However, the EU initiative is regarded more as a project for the longer term, to reduce Africa’s vulnerability, than as a solution to the immediate problem in the Black Sea.

“In a few months we could be blackmailed again, so we need to find solutions to increase production globally,” one official said.

The EU wants to see more fertilisers produced in Africa to guard against Russian blackmail. AP

Ditch biofuels

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a proposal too on Monday: tell global biofuel producers, who make fuel out of corn, to put those crops aside for the moment and grow more cereals instead.

“If we could temporarily reduce the amount of biofuels going into the petrol pumps, that actually does bring down the price of maize quite significantly,” said Environment Secretary George Eustice, who said British officials had “done the analysis on this”.

They are not the first to raise the idea. Environmentalists have long been doubtful about biofuels, and 40 groups including Oxfam and Greenpeace wrote to EU leaders last month telling them to “choose food over fuel”.

But as Mr Eustice acknowledged, winning over the ethanol-producing Americans is a major obstacle to the British plan, and there was no mention of it in the G7's final communique.

US President Joe Biden has increased the use of biofuels in domestic fuel production in a move to reduce prices, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have called for an expansion of domestic ethanol production.

US President Joe Biden favours the use of American biofuels to ease the pain of rising fuel prices. EPA

Stop Russian 'pilfering'

Russia is accused of stealing grain during its four-month offensive in Ukraine and hoarding its own supplies to tighten the squeeze on global markets.

Ukraine on Wednesday published footage of what it implied was a Russian vehicle tearing up farmland before being blown up by a Ukrainian strike.

The G7 leaders said catching Russia red-handed by finding stolen goods on the world market would have the effect of “deterring Russia from continuing its illegal seizures”. Moscow denies the allegations.

Britain is putting £1.5 million ($1.8m) towards a screening process to detect Russian grain theft, hoping to increase Ukrainian revenue as well as food supplies.

Leaders did not say how they plan to trace the origin of stolen grain, but Ukraine has pointed the finger at Russian cargo ships headed to Syria as a likely smuggling route.

Money and aid

The G7’s headline promise in a two-page declaration on food security was $4.5 billion of new funding to ease the effects of hunger and malnutrition.

The $2.8bn American portion of this will mostly go towards “direct humanitarian interventions” with the rest aimed at increasing longer-term food production, a Biden administration official said.

Activists said more was needed. Save the Children’s humanitarian director Gabriella Waaijman said the G7’s decisions were a “small start” but that the summit was a “lost opportunity” for a wider package of support.

European countries also want to speed up the rail route out of Ukraine, which involves changing wagons at the EU border. Brussels has sent customs experts to speed up checks and Britain is offering £10m to repair railways.

Leaders meanwhile promised to minimise knock-on effects of sanctions on food shipments, while insisting it was Russia ultimately to blame for the problem.

Keep pushing on the Black Sea

For all the workarounds being pursued, the real prize would be opening up the Black Sea, especially the port of Odesa, to restart grain shipments towards the Bosporus and the Mediterranean.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres briefed the G7 on Monday on his attempts to broker an agreement but had no clear breakthrough to report to leaders, although they renewed their encouragement for his efforts.

The mood among leaders was “not pessimistic”, was the best that one official close to the summit felt able to say.

Ukraine has called for western navies to protect its ships, but French President Emmanuel Macron said any arrangement had to involve talks with Russia. Turkey is positioning itself as a mediator.

Mr Guterres has refused to disclose details of a potential deal but said he was hoping to bring more Russian products to world markets as well as Ukrainian ones.

Updated: June 30, 2022, 7:18 AM