Urgent measures to break the Russian blockade on grain exports from Ukrainian ports, including by trying to open routes through Romanian and Baltic ports, will be discussed by G7 foreign and agriculture ministers at meetings in Germany.
The blockade of grain exports is fast becoming one of the most pressing diplomatic and humanitarian crises in Ukraine. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said the US was working on solutions “to get this food out into the world so it can help lower prices.”
The G7 foreign ministers meet in the Baltic Sea resort of Weissenhaus, northeast of Hamburg, and the agriculture ministers in Stuttgart.
Cem Özdemir, the German Minister of Agriculture and a member of the Green Party, has been looking with the EU for months at alternative train routes through Poland and Belarus to the Baltic ports, but the different track gauges between Ukraine and Poland, an already existing traffic backlog and shortage of suitable rail cars all count against this option.
According to a Ukrainian estimate, only 20% of the exports that Ukraine normally sends by ship through the ports of the Black Sea could ever be transported by rail to the Baltic ports. The costs of road transport have increased fivefold in the past year.
Before the war, most of Ukraine’s food — enough to feed 400 million people — was exported through the country’s seven Black Sea ports. In the eight months before the conflict started, nearly 51 million tons of grain went through it, according to the UN World Food Programme. The transaction was worth $47 billion (£38 billion) per year to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Minister of Agricultural Policy and Food, Mykola Solsky, has studied options ranging from Gdansk or further east to the port at Klaipėda in Lithuania and three ports in Latvia. The Baltic ports have lost trade from Russia and Belarus, including potash, so they currently have overcapacity.
The Romanian port of Constanța has also taken some cargoes of Ukrainian grain, but ships that then transport the grain to Turkey would probably have to stay in Romanian waters.
The UN also discussed whether a humanitarian corridor could be opened through Belarus to bring the grain to the Baltic ports, as the track gauge between Ukraine and Belarus is uniform.
David Beasley of the UN World Food Programme, who has been sounding the alarm for weeks, warned: “Right now, Ukraine’s grain silos are full. At the same time, 44 million people around the world are marching towards starvation. We need to open these ports so food can go in and out of Ukraine. The world is demanding it because hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend on food coming in through these ports.”
Normally, Ukraine would export about 5 to 6 million tons of grain and 700,000 tons of oilseeds per month through the ports on the Black Sea. According to the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, there is an estimated export backlog of between 15 and 20 million tons.
Markiyan Dmytrasevych, the designated Deputy Minister of Agriculture of Ukraine, said that rail exports could be expanded from 600,000 tons to 1 million tons, but it would take 18-24 months to clear the current stocks, which is before a new crop has been added. In April, only 560,000 tons were exported by rail from Ukraine.
Roman Slaston, director-general of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, said reopening ports – “Plan A” – remains the best option, but exports by road, barge and rail trucks could double to about half of what passed through the Ukrainian Black Sea.
The greatest potential for growth, he said, would come from organizing an army of as many as 10,000 trucks to transport grain on a five-day tour from Ukraine to the Baltic ports. He said Ukraine could use 40 grain terminals in the EU.
Slaston said as many as 5,000 rail cars loaded with grain were waiting to cross at the Polish border, but currently there was only capacity to transfer 350 rail cars a day.
After the port city of Odessa was hit by Russian missiles on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy warned: “Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. The poorest will be hit the hardest. The political consequences of this will be dire.”
David Miliband, the director of the International Rescue Committee, said: “Right now I think it is at least as likely that the sanctions against Russia will be blamed on rising food prices as the invasion of Ukraine. There is a huge competition to win for public opinion worldwide.”
There are already signs that Russian diplomacy is trying to shift the blame. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, claimed during a visit to Oman that Ukrainian authorities refused to let ships carrying wheat out of their ports and had mined the areas around ports. Ukraine said the allegations were absurd.
In 2020, Ukraine was the world’s fifth largest exporter of wheat, with low- and middle-income countries as major beneficiaries. The main export destinations were Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lebanon.
In Egypt, where a third of the population lives below the official poverty line and depends on government-subsidized bread, flour prices have risen by 15%. General inflation stood at just over 13% in April.
In the month after the conflict started, export prices for wheat and maize rose by 22% and 20% respectively, on top of the sharp increases in 2021.
Solsky said these increases are likely to continue as Ukrainian farmers’ sowing campaign has slowed by as much as a fifth due to a lack of herbicides, colder weather, diesel fuel and vehicle driving due to curfews. Farmers have switched from spring crops to sunflower and soybeans. It is estimated that about one fifth of Ukraine’s agricultural land is now in Russian hands.