Diplomats call for action as global food crisis deepens

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BERLIN — Senior diplomats on Friday called for swift global action in the face of a growing food crisis, as war in Ukraine worsens conditions that have pushed millions into hunger.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock hosted officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, in the German capital for a summit aimed at finding ways to mitigate the effects of the situation, which the United Nations says has now left tens of millions of people acutely food insecure.

“Russia is waging a cynical grain war, using it as a tool to drive up food prices [skyrocket] and destabilize entire countries,” Baerbock said in remarks alongside Blinken before the summit opened.

Officials described a slow confluence of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and a series of global conflicts, including, now, war in Ukraine – a major grain exporter whose crops are a vital source of livelihood for countries like Egypt and Lebanon.

US officials have stressed the need to compensate for the dramatic reduction in exports from Ukraine, which before the February 24 Russian invasion exported some 6 million tons of grain per month, mostly by sea. Today, large quantities of wheat, barley, corn and vegetable oil sit in storage facilities and ports due to fighting, damaged infrastructure and a Russian maritime blockade.

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Beyond Ukraine, prices for many agricultural commodities and inputs have soared as export restrictions compound previous supply chain barriers. Russia, also a major exporter, has tried to blame Western sanctions for growing hunger in Africa and elsewhere, a claim that Germany and its allies have called “fake news”.

Blinken, speaking to reporters after the meeting, warned that suffering from the war and food crisis was likely to persist for some time, but said the stakes of ensuring Russia could not absorb its neighbor were high.

“If Russia gets away with violating the fundamental principles at stake, it’s not just the Ukrainian people [who] suffer,” he said. “It will take us back to a much more dangerous time, a much more unstable time. We will send the message that these principles are somehow replaceable.

Although the meeting is not intended to produce new donations for countries in need, additional funding from the world’s major economic powers could come this weekend, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomes President Biden and fellow leaders of the G-7 nations bloc for another peak in the Bavarian Alps.

Although the effects of the conflict in Ukraine have drawn attention to growing hunger, experts say food security has been eroding for years, in part due to an increasingly concentrated global food supply chain and vulnerable to disruption.

These factors have more than doubled the number of people falling into the ranks of severe food insecurity in recent years, bringing it to more than 300 million worldwide, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP). Among the hardest hit countries are Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, where up to 750,000 people are in dire conditions according to the United Nations.

Unlike many previous food crises, adequate food supplies exist but are not reaching those who need them, experts say.

“It’s about affordability and accessibility,” said Martin Frick, director of WFP’s global office in Berlin.

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Authorities are now trying to help Ukraine get its crops overland, but so far only a small fraction of that trade has taken place. While an ordinary freighter can carry 50,000 metric tons, the largest European truck carries 40 tons. Rail transport is also difficult because Ukraine has a different rail gauge than other parts of Europe.

“It’s virtually impossible to balance closing seaports,” Frick said.

Officials describe a host of additional challenges, including persuading countries to abandon the export controls they imposed in response to the crisis and convincing companies that ship and transport goods to move grain and Russian fertilizers on the world market. Many companies have been reluctant to do so due to sanctions imposed on Russia, despite not covering trade in food or agricultural inputs, a phenomenon officials call “over-compliance”.

WFP officials say the organization needs $22 billion this year to meet emergency food needs, but they expect to be able to raise only half of that. The shortfall comes as Western countries pour arms and military aid into Ukraine. The United States alone has provided Ukraine more than $6 billion in security assistance since February.

Absent from the gathering was China, a major grain producer that uses most of its supply for domestic consumption or storage. Although Beijing appeared to deepen its alliance with Russia ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, it did not provide military support to Russia, US officials said.

Blinken this week discussed the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Severodonetsk, a strategic town in the eastern Donbass region, noting heavy Russian losses in its offensive.

What we have always said is that the trajectory of this conflict will not be linear,” he said. “It will come and go.”

Blinken said he was confident that outside military aid would help Kyiv continue to resist the Russian onslaught despite its losses in the east. The United States and its allies have gradually increased the range of weapons they supply to Ukraine, but some US lawmakers have called on the Biden administration to supply even more sophisticated weaponry, including long-range drones.

“The days ahead will not be easy,” Blinken said. “But we must and we will resist Russian aggression.”

He said that despite the Russian economy’s apparent resilience to date, global sanctions would have long-term consequences. The country’s economy is expected to contract by up to 15% this year. Blinken pointed to pledges by European nations to wean themselves off Russian oil, a major source of cash.

“Eventually, the Russian people will have to ask themselves: ‘Is this war worth the cost? Why are we doing this? “, He said.

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