Russia’s Ukraine war, grain blockade is stoking a global food crisis


With few good solutions — one option put forward appears to be a risky naval escort — the United States and its allies have sought to make it clear who they feel is responsible.

Accusing Russia of “blackmail,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said this week that the Kremlin was holding back its own supplies of grain after attacking Ukrainian storage facilities and seizing stocks, all while blockading the country’s ports.

“The consequences of these shameful acts are there for everyone to see. Global wheat prices are skyrocketing. And it is the fragile countries and vulnerable populations that suffer most,” she added in an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which countries in the Middle East and Africa rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread.

The lack of Ukrainian grain is pushing food prices up and pressing countries already facing shortages toward famine. Leaders at Davos emphasized the link between the blockaded ports of Odesa and the millions of people threatened with starvation in countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia and beyond. 

And that pain could last for years around the globe. 

Because many farmers here have missed a crucial planting window, not only can they not move the sunflowers, wheat, corn and other farm commodities they have stored, but they may not have grown much by the time the next harvest arrives.

The invasion of a country that also provided a fifth of the world’s nutrient supply for fertilizer is also having a similarly detrimental effect on crop yields in nations thousands of miles away, according to the International Fertilizer Development Center. Russia and Belarus, under sanctions in the wake of the invasion, account for 40 percent of the crop nutrient potash.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week that dwindling food supplies caused by the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and climate change could lead to global unrest. 

“If we do not feed people, we feed conflict,” he said. 

Russia denies it’s at fault, however, and has sought to shift blame to the West.

The Kremlin indicated this week it was willing to lift the blockade and export its own grain and fertilizer — but only if the U.S. and its allies lift sanctions imposed in the wake of the invasion.

Wrong train wheels, no planes and backed up automobiles

A Ukrainian explosive disposal unit had to dig out a missile from a farm field NBC News visited this month near Kyiv before farmers there could lay seed. Trenches and foxholes were still dug into parts of the land. 

Farm workers had maintained a schedule of eight hours of work, eight hours of service in territorial defense, and eight hours of sleep when Russian forces advanced toward the capital. Locals with Kalashnikovs still maintain strict checkpoints near fields and agricultural infrastructure. 

While the Kremlin’s forces are long gone, there is still a lingering fear that Russian missiles will target grain storage and farm fields to further undermine the Ukrainian economy, Taras Ivanyshyn, the investment director of Agro-Region, a major agriculture company, said along a dirt road that abutted a field owned by his company. 

But there’s not much they can do about that. The main challenge now, Ivanyshyn explained, is moving the tons of grain stuck in their stores.