As Putin creates a global hunger crisis, the EU must act now

24. Mai 2022

Opinion piece by Viola von Cramon, MEP

Putin’s inhuman war of aggression against Ukraine aimed at extinguishing Ukrainian statehood produces alarming cascading effects on the wider world that go far beyond security. In a particularly dramatic way, this becomes evident when considering global food security. At their last meeting, the G7 agriculture ministers finally acknowledged this.

Russian troops have been deliberately destroying silos, fields, farm equipment and transport infrastructure. As a result, a substantial part of land is unavailable to produce crop and will stay so in the nearest future due to unexploded ordnance. On top of this, there is a lack of seeds, fertilizer and fuel. Moreover, of those crops already harvested, several million tons are yet to be exported as the Russian fleet is blocking the Black Sea ports and land transport capacities are restricted. Scarce supplies, broken logistic chains as well as shortages of fuel and manpower cause a significant decrease in Ukraine’s agricultural production and exports.

Most directly, this means that Ukraine’s economy is heading for a collapse, with agricultural products accounting for more than 40 % of its total export revenues. The effects, however, stretch far beyond Ukraine’s borders, taking into account that the country is one of the world’s key exporters of commodities like wheat and sunflowers.

The war affects the global agricultural market as such, as it is functioning on the premise of uninterrupted supply flows. But primarily exposed to the disruptions are those low-income countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa like Yemen, Egypt and Lebanon most dependant on Ukrainian (and Russian) imports to sustain their cereal consumption. Other countries are reliant to a more limited extent but are vulnerable due to their restricted economic capacities to adjust to food prices that recently reached record heights.

Those countries thus face pre-existing food insecurities, which have been exacerbated to acute threats of famine – as the repercussions of the war, the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are interacting devastatingly. According to FAO estimations, the number of undernourished people worldwide could therefore increase by 8 to 13 million. Numerous examples in the past have demonstrated how limited access to affordable food can be a powerful catalyst for political upheavals and migration flows. In several countries, the recent skyrocketing increases of food, fuel and electricity costs have already resulted in mass protests.

Against the background of these looming humanitarian catastrophes with their potential political implications, we must be clear about what we are facing: As part of his merciless warfare, Putin ruthlessly abuses Ukraine’s position as major agricultural actor and weaponises food. The vileness and political cynicism of this blackmail is hard to bear when one recalls the killing of millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor, famines deliberately induced by the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The Kremlin alone is to blame for this development and there is nothing to suggest that Putin acknowledges this responsibility by reopening Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. To hope that Putin rediscovers his humanity in the light of a global hunger crisis and contributes constructively to counteract it is nothing but naive and reckless.

Instead, the EU and its international allies have to act immediately. In the short term, it is key to create storage and transport alternatives prior to the harvest scheduled in Southern and Central Ukraine for the upcoming weeks. In concrete terms, this means: Firstly, expand storage capabilities by providing mobile silo bags to store crops at the harvest sites. Secondly, implement the lifting of import restrictions on wheat and barley already announced by the European Commission. Thirdly, remove obstacles that currently massively impede the transport of agricultural commodities from Ukraine to the EU overland. Customs clearance at the Ukrainian-Polish border, which currently takes several days, needs to be accelerated. To substantially increase transport capacities, Ukrainian trucks with emission standard 2 need to be granted temporary permits to enter the EU. Moreover, the EU must raise the permissible gross weight for trucks. To facilitate transport via the rail network despite different gauges, transshipment points must be set up at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

These extremely urgent emergency measures to increase Ukraine’s logistical capacities have to be supplemented by general international efforts of intensified strategic cooperation to structurally relieve pressure from the global food system. National solo efforts such as export restrictions, which some countries have already applied or announced, are counterproductive and exacerbate problems globally. The broad range of available policy options currently discussed has to be evaluated from an inclusive perspective respecting the needs of the most vulnerable countries – and without abandoning the Green Deal. Ultimately, making food production genuinely solidary and sustainable is the only way to become more resilient and less exposed to its instrumentalization by warmongers now and in the future.