The Sierra Leone-flagged dry cargo ship Razoni, carrying a cargo of 26,000 tonnes of corn, departing from Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa on August 1 under the under the Black Sea Grain Initiative deal signed in Istanbul, on July 22, aimed at relieving a global food crisis. Image Credit: AFP

The first shipment of grains made its way out of Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa on Monday. That came as a huge relief since it’s a crucial initial step towards unlocking the millions of tonnes of grains blockaded by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. This will not only help boost global food supplies, but also diminish the looming threat of food shortage.

A disruption to food supplies worldwide was a major concern after the war erupted in Ukraine on February 24. As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, two of the major grain producers in the world, dragged into the seventh month, food shortage fears became alarming.

Grain shipments were unable to leave Ukraine after its ports were closed. This resulted in an increase in food prices around the world.

[The shipments will] bring much-needed stability and relief to global food security, especially in the most fragile humanitarian contexts.

- Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Turkey’s defence ministry and the United Nations said the cargo ship Razoni left Odessa for Lebanon with over 26,000 tonnes of corn. And Lebanon badly needs food grains since it has been suffering from one of the world’s worst acute financial crises in more than 150 years, according to the World Bank.

The shipment is good news for Lebanon and the rest of the region because Ukraine is a major food producer for sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, is expected to release more Ukrainian crops to foreign markets.

The move will go a long way in easing the growing global hunger crisis. The World Food Programme says that around 47 million people are at risk of acute hunger. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst affected.

■ 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021 — 46 million people more from a year earlier and 150 million more from 2019.
■ 9.8% of the world population were affected by hunger in 2021
■ 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3%) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021
■ 924 million people (11.7% of the global population) faced food insecurity at severe levels.

Already 10 per cent of the world population goes to bed hungry. Around 50 million of them are at crisis levels of hunger, which means they are staring at famine. That’s up from 27 million in 2019 before the pandemic began, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A United Nations report says that the number of people affected by hunger globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021. That is an increase of about 46 million since 2020 and 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition report.

The hunger crisis results from several factors, including natural disasters and conflict. And the Ukraine war’s impact has been crippling. More so since it’s one of the largest grain producers in the world.

Why Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe

According to UN figures, Ukraine provides around 10 per cent of globally traded wheat and corn and 37 per cent of sunflower oil. Little wonder, Ukraine was known as the “breadbasket of Europe”.

In 2021, Ukraine produced 80 million metric tonnes of grain, enough to feed 400 million people for six months, according to a video tweeted by President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine is on course to harvest and ship less than half of that amount this year, The Guardian quoted the tweet.

Much of the grains produced in Ukraine are ferried to the rest of the world through its Black Sea ports, which have been blockaded since the war with Russia. Ukraine used to export about 5 million tonnes a month, but the country now has been struggling to get 2 million tonnes a month out westward by road, rail and river routes, reports say. 

Getting grain out of the country and being able to store the harvest inside the country are the mirror image of each other, because whatever you get out is freeing up storage capacity for the next harvest.

- Jean-Marc Peterschmitt, Managing Director for Industry, Commerce and Agribusiness, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’

Around 18 million tonnes of grain from last year’s crop are waiting in Ukraine’s siloes for export, says a report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Storage space is in short supply, and it will become worse with the addition of the harvested winter wheat and barley crop — and the spring crop, including sunflower and corn, that will join the queue soon.

“The biggest issue is storing the grain. There is some warehouse and silo capacity free, but not enough for the harvest taking place now. We’ve been told they are missing 15 million tonnes of capacity, even before the spring crop harvest that’s coming in in two months’ time,” says Jean-Marc Peterschmitt, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Managing Director for Industry, Commerce and Agribusiness. “It is unclear how it will play out,” reliefweb quoted him saying in July.

Storage of grain is the biggest issue

“Getting grain out of the country and being able to store the harvest inside the country are the mirror image of each other, because whatever you get out is freeing up storage capacity for the next harvest,” adds Peterschmitt.

“For now, the only solution is temporary storage — silo bags or floor storage or even storage in the field with some basic covers, which obviously will deteriorate the quality of grain,” says Natalia Zhukova, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Director, Agribusiness. “Silo bags can pretty much preserve the quality for 12 months because they are hermetically sealed so infections or pests cannot develop inside. But simple silos without proper drying or ventilation will obviously have problems.”

Ukraine grains
Image Credit: Gulf News

Amid such a grim scenario, the UN-brokered deal to lift the blockade on Odessa was agreed upon in Turkey on July 22. And the Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni is the first to leave Odessa, where 16 more vessels are waiting their turn, and more will follow.

But some shipping companies are not yet rushing to export food across the Black Sea as they assess the danger of mines in the waters and the risk of rockets hitting grain warehouses and ports, the Associated Press said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hopes the shipments will “bring much-needed stability and relief to global food security, especially in the most fragile humanitarian contexts.”

The first shipment of corn is headed to Lebanon, where an explosion at its main port in the capital of Beirut 2020 ravaged the city and destroyed grain silos. Lebanon mostly imports wheat from Ukraine but also buys its corn to make cooking oil and produce animal feed, AP added.

The world needs more grain shipments from Ukraine. It can’t let the poor go hungry.

— With additional inputs from AP and Bloomberg