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Diplomats urge action as global food crisis deepens

By Missy Ryan Washington Post

BERLIN – Top diplomats urged swift global action on Friday in the face of a mounting food crisis, as the war in Ukraine worsens conditions that have pushed millions of people into hunger.

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

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

Officials have described a slow-building confluence of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and a spate of global conflicts including, now, the war in Ukraine – a major grain exporter whose crops are a key source of sustenance for countries including Egypt and Lebanon.

U.S. officials have stressed the need to compensate for the dramatic reduction in exports from Ukraine, which before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion exported some 6 million tonnes of grain a month, mostly by sea. Now, vast amounts of wheat, barley, maize and vegetable oil are sitting in storage facilities and ports due to fighting, damaged infrastructure and a Russian maritime blockade.

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

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

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

While the meeting was not intended to produce new donations for countries in need, additional funding from the world’s leading economic powers may come this weekend, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will host President Joe Biden and other leaders of the G-7 bloc of nations for another summit in the Bavarian Alps.

Though the effects of the Ukraine conflict have focused attention on mounting hunger, experts say that food security has been eroding for years, driven in part by a global food supply chain that is increasingly concentrated and vulnerable to disruption.

Those factors have more than doubled the number of people who fall into the ranks of severely food insecure in recent years, bringing it above 300 million worldwide, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). Among the countries that are hardest hit are Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, where up to 750,000 people are in what the United Nations says are catastrophic conditions.

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

“It’s a question of affordability and accessibility,” said Martin Frick, director of the U.N. WFP’s global office in Berlin.

Officials are now attempting to help Ukraine get its crops out by land, but so far only a small fraction of that trade has occurred. While an ordinary freighter can carry 50,000 metric tonnes, the largest European truck carries 40 tonnes. Rail transport is also challenging because Ukraine has a different rail gauge than other parts of Europe.

“It’s virtually impossible to balance out the closing of the sea ports,” Frick said.

Officials describe a host of additional challenges including persuading countries to drop export controls they have imposed in reaction to the crisis and convincing companies that ship and insure commodity transport to get Russian grain and fertilizer onto the world market. Many companies have been reluctant to do so because of sanctions on Russia, despite the fact they don’t cover trade in food or agricultural inputs, a phenomenon officials describe as “over compliance.”

WFP officials say the organization needs $22 billion this year to deal with emergency food needs, but they expect they may be able to raise just half of that. The shortfall occurs as countries in the West pour weapons and military aid into Ukraine. The United States alone has given Ukraine more than $6 billion in security assistance since February.

Absent from the gathering was China, a major grain producer that uses the bulk of its supply for domestic consumption or stockpiling. While Beijing appeared to deepen its alliance with Russia ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, it has not provided military support to Russia, U.S. officials have said.

Blinken addressed the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces this week from Severodonetsk, a strategic town in the eastern Donbas region, noting significant Russian casualties in its offensive.

“What we’ve said all along is that the trajectory of this conflict is not going to be linear,” he said. “It will move back and forth.”

Blinken voiced confidence that outside military aid would help Kyiv to continue to resist the Russian assault despite its losses in the east. The United States and its allies have gradually increased the range of weaponry they are providing Ukraine, but some U.S. lawmakers have called on the Biden administration to supply even more sophisticated weaponry, including long-range drones.

“The days ahead are not going to be easy,” Blinken said. “But we must and we will stand up to Russian aggression.”

He said that despite the Russian economy’s apparent resilience to date, global sanctions would take a long-term toll. The country’s economy is expected to shrink by up to 15% this year. Blinken pointed to European nations’ pledges 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.