Antony Blinken leads UN bid to fix Ukraine war food price crisis

Ukrainian farmers are struggling to sow crops and export grain through Russia's naval blockade

A farmer in Ukraine's Khmelnytsky region. The Russian invasion has caused food prices to rise worldwide, particularly for cereals and flour, as Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat and corn. EPA
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host dozens of counterparts at the United Nations next week in a bid to tackle a global hunger crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the agricultural chaos it has spawned, officials said on Tuesday.

Cindy McCain, a US anti-hunger envoy and the widow of one-time Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said talks in New York led by Antony Blinken would raise funds for urgent food aid and seek long-term solutions to global hunger.

Farmers in Ukraine, until recently one of the world's top grain exporters, have struggled to sow crops since Russia’s invasion and its naval blockade has disrupted exports, triggering rising price and worsening the threat of hunger across much of Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

“We’re facing the most serious food crisis in more than 70 years, the worst since the Second World War. We have to act now,” said Ms McCain, Washington’s envoy to the UN’s food agencies.

Russian forces have strewn landmines and booby traps across agricultural land and stolen farming equipment during their 10-week invasion of Ukraine, leaving farmers unable to plant crops this season, Ms McCain told reporters on Tuesday.

The bombing of railway lines and a blockade on Ukraine’s ports has hampered exports, she said.

She urged Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, to “stop this senseless, unjustified war” immediately.

Talks at UN headquarters will “rally the world to take steps to bolster food supply chains and strengthen food resilience” and “mobilise support for the UN's humanitarian and food organisations as they respond to the crisis at hand”, she said.

Mr Blinken will on May 19 host talks on the link between war and hunger, Ms McCain said. The US holds the UN Security Council’s rotating presidency for the month.

Ukraine's leading agricultural group Ukrlandfarming said on Tuesday that Russia's military assault had caused losses of hundreds of millions of dollars, mainly due to the lack of access to land and the destruction of farms.

The company, which produces grain, meat, sugar and eggs, said it had lost control of 40 per cent of its land portfolio – mostly areas in the south and east that have been occupied by Russian forces or where fighting made farming too dangerous.

Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank, on Tuesday said Ukraine was "sitting on €8 billion [$8.43bn] worth of wheat" it could not export due to the war and its lack of access to sea trade.

Speaking at the European Commission in Brussels, Mr Hoyer said Ukrainian farmers in some areas had continued sowing seeds and expected a “good harvest” in coming weeks, but that blockaded seaports would prevent exports.

Ukraine was the world's fourth-largest exporter of maize in the 2020/21 season and the sixth-biggest wheat exporter, International Grains Council data indicates. But nearly 25 million tonnes of grains are now stuck in the besieged country, the UN says.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday that trade at the country's ports was at a standstill and urged the international community to take immediate steps to end a Russian blockade to allow wheat shipments to reach needy importers across the developing world.

“For the first time in decades and decades, in Odesa there is no regular movement of the merchant fleet, there is no routine port work," Mr Zelenskyy said in a video address. "This has probably never happened in Odesa since the Second World War.

“And this is a blow not only to Ukraine. Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. And over time, the situation can become, frankly, frightening.”

Updated: May 10, 2022, 4:35 PM