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WASHINGTON – Facing increased needs and not enough food, nations are grappling with the far-reaching impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — an agriculture-rich nation often called the breadbasket of the world.
Millions of people could starve to death. Countries and regions could become destabilized as food shortages led to riots, protests and increased migration, experts warn.
Against this backdrop, President Joe Biden meets with G-7 leaders in Germany over the next few days to tackle what was already projected to be record levels of food insecurity in the world – caused by rising costs, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, civil wars – now deepened by the war in Ukraine.
The World Food Program had to stop providing daily school meals to 178,000 South Sudanese children this month alone.
In Syria, food support for refugees was reduced to 1,000 calories per day, less than half the recommended daily intake.
In Yemen, rations that can include wheat flour, peas and vegetable oil have been cut by about half for 8 million people since January.
Now more ration cuts are imminent, the world’s largest humanitarian organization recently warned.
Up to 50 million people in 45 countries are on the brink of famine as the costs of food, fuel and fertilizer have gone up and grains grown in Ukraine that typically feed millions of people can’t be exported.
“This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said in a video message Friday to G-7 leaders. “No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”
Biden, G-7 leaders to discuss food security
Finding ways to prevent sure dire outcomes will be high on the G-7 agenda.
"It's very much on President Biden's mind," White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Saturday's flight to Germany.
Other nations are expected to follow the financial lead of the United States, which committed $5 billion for global food security in the approximately $40 billion package of Ukraine-related assistance approved in May.
“That I would say is the biggest piece of the jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put in place in the short term,” said Mark Lowcock, a former under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the United Nations.
But as difficult as it may be to raise as much money as humanitarian groups say they need, it could be even harder to figure how to get millions of tons of grain out of Ukraine without ceding to Russia’s demand that sanctions be lifted.
“At the end of the day, the Russians hold most of the cards here,” said Christopher Skaluba, director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative. “And they haven't been willing to really deal on humanitarian grounds.”
Black Sea ports crucial to crisis
Exploiting how crucial agriculture is to Ukraine’s economy, Russia is blocking access to the Black Sea ports typically used to export 60 million tons of grain a year. Russians have also intentionally bombed grain elevators and other agricultural infrastructure, according to Ukrainians, and have stolen some of the country’s grain.
The U.S. and its allies are exploring using trains and trucks to get wheat out. But those options are more cumbersome and costly – and can’t handle the volume.
“The only substantial option for the export of grain is through the Ukrainian Black Sea ports,” Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum, recently wrote. “There is no viable alternative.”
Nations could cut sanctions to get Russian President Vladimir Putin to co-operate but leaders are trying to increase the pressure as the war threatens to grind on indefinitely.
“Our measures will only tighten the screws and restrict revenue Mr. Putin needs to fund this war,” Kirby said Thursday about additional sanctions expected to be announced during the G-7.
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NATO countries are reluctant to use their military force to provide safe passage for grain-laden ships out of the Black Sea because that could lead to a direct confrontation with Russian forces that would escalate the war, according to Leah Scheunemann, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.
She said the best option is using the United Nations to arrange for merchant vessels from neutral states to get the grain, after guaranteeing Russia that the ships are not armed.
Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, said Friday he has been in “intense contact” with Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, the United States, the European Union and others on the issue.
Kirby said Thursday that the United States welcomes efforts by Turkey to broker an agreement.
“But I think it just remains to be seen whether that’s going to be viable,” he said. “Putin is weaponizing food, literally, and this is a prime example of that.”
Åslund has urged the G-7 to undertake a massive public diplomacy campaign so key nations in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia understand why there’s a food shortage and that the obvious solution is opening shipping from the Odesa port.
“This effort will force Moscow to pay a greater political price for the blockade,” Åslund wrote.
Countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy, which faced the brunt of the migrant crisis that started in 2015, could also be energized to find a solution to prevent a further rise of immigration into Europe from North Africa, Scheunemann said.
Testifying before Congress last month, World Food Program executive director David Beasley noted that the global price of wheat has surpassed the previous high, which was set right before the Arab Spring Some have argued the high cost of food contributed to the uprisings and protests in the Arab world in the early 2010s that threatened regional stability in the Middle East.
Why Ukraine's wheat is so vital
The war in Ukraine is so devastating to food prices because Ukraine and Russia supply about one-quarter of the world’s wheat. About half of the wheat distributed by the World Food Program has come from Ukraine.
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The countries most affected in the short term include Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East and Africa that rely heavily on food imported from Russia and Ukraine.
Over the next few years, 13 million people could become food insecure because of the ripple effects of war, according to the U.N.
Fertilizer costs have reached record high levels, increasing the cost of production and reducing yields if farmers cut back.
“Russia is a very large exporter of fertilizers, and they haven't been exporting it,” said Joe Glauber, a senior research fellow for the International Food Policy Research Institute, an agricultural research center headquartered in Washington. “Because of that, fertilizer prices have risen globally.”
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Exacerbating the problem, more than 20 countries – including India and Indonesia –reacted to the shortages and rising cost of grains by banning exports of their own crops, further driving up the global price. The Biden administration and others are trying to get countries with bans to “rethink that position,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during recent meetings at the U.N. India and Indonesia are among the non-G-7 countries that were invited to participate in the upcoming meetings.
“This is absolutely just an unprecedented situation,” said Steve Taravella, a spokesman for the World Food Program, which has less than half of the $22.2 billion it estimates it needs to feed a record 152 million people this year.
While the organization has had to cut rations before when demand outstripped resources, Taravella said the World Food Program has never before faced cuts in so many countries at the same time.
The group’s message for G-7 leaders? Act now or the unprecedented levels of hunger will continue to rise.
Last month, the finance and development ministers of the G-7 countries came together behind efforts to address food shortages in both the short and longer-term.
Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expects Biden and other leaders will, at a minimum, reinforce those commitments and tie them into a coherent approach.
Still, she’s waiting to see whether nations will put up enough funding to pay for the plan.
“The steps that they’ve said that they will be taking are sufficient and comprehensive,” she said, “but I just haven’t seen the financing behind that yet.”
Meanwhile, in the western Syrian city of Hama, one mother told World Food Program workers that she wouldn’t have had children if she had known “my life would end up like this.”
“I would," she said, "have saved them all this suffering."
Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why food shortages will be high on Biden's agenda at G-7 meeting