Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis

Special A shipment of Ukrainian grain reaches Turkey in August after a deal between Russia and Ukraine. (AFP)
A shipment of Ukrainian grain reaches Turkey in August after a deal between Russia and Ukraine. (AFP)
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Updated 08 October 2022

Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis

Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis
  • The Black Sea Grain Initiative freed up blockaded Ukrainian exports, but food prices remain stubbornly high 
  • As the value of the US dollar has increased, the cost of food and fuel imports in poorer countries has risen

DUBAI: As food-insecure households in the Middle East, Africa and Asia continue to pay a high price for a war raging thousands of miles away, forces beyond the control of any single government or international authority are compounding the problem.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and the resultant blockade of the latter’s southern Black Sea ports, skyrocketing food prices raised the specter of increased hunger and malnutrition in many countries.

Despite an easing of that crisis following a four-way agreement in Istanbul on July 22, rising inflation worldwide and global supply-chain disruptions now pose a new threat.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in mid-September with the aim of bringing down the rate of inflation in the US. But in the process, the value of the dollar has soared, which is causing prices of food and fuel imports to rise in less-wealthy countries whose currencies are plunging.

These new pressures come at a time when food prices were supposed to be under control, in part thanks to an agreement brokered by the UN and Turkey to create a safe maritime humanitarian corridor from three Ukrainian ports.

To implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a Joint Coordination Center was established in Istanbul that includes senior representatives from Russia and Ukraine, along with mediators from Turkey and the UN.

Implementation of the deal to resume exports of grain, foodstuffs, fertilizer and other commodities from the Black Sea basin — often referred to as Europe’s breadbasket — has been halting since it was signed in July.

Nevertheless, it has helped to lower the prices of staples such as bread and cooking oil in developing countries that had been pushed to the brink of debt default and starvation.

“In the month following the outbreak of the conflict, the price of wheat flour rose by 47 percent in Lebanon, 11 percent in Yemen, 15 percent in Libya, 14 percent in Palestine and 10 percent in Syria,” Abdel Mageed Yahia, the World Food Program’s country director in the UAE and representative for the GCC region, told Arab News.

“Global price fluctuations will not immediately dent domestic inflation in countries facing a toxic mix of tumbling currency values and high inflation. While there is no single solution to the food-security crisis in these countries and around the world, the (Black Sea grain deal) is an exceedingly positive development and a step in the right direction.”

People lining up in front of a bakery to buy bread in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on June 22, 2022 as fuel and wheat shortage deepened. (AFP/File Photo)

Given that Ukraine was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat prior to the conflict, the blockade of its ports was costing the country billions of dollars in lost revenues and, at the same time, pushing up global food prices to alarming levels.

Before the invasion, Ukraine exported about 6 million tons of food every month. That figure had fallen to an average of just 1 million tons a month before the Black Sea Grain Initiative took effect.

As a result many countries, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa that import more than 40 percent of their wheat and almost 25 percent of their vegetable oil from Russia and Ukraine, faced a double blow in the form of acute food shortages and soaring prices.

The grain deal, described at the time by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a victory for diplomacy,” is designed to maintain Ukrainian food exports of 5 million tons a month.

“There is no solution to the global food crisis without ensuring full global access to Ukraine’s food products and Russian food and fertilizers,” Guterres said during a visit to Ukraine in August.

The agreement has undoubtedly helped millions of people who were struggling with the rising cost of living, as well as Ukraine’s embattled farmers. But according to experts, it alone cannot solve the wider problems of famine and food insecurity, the causes of which are much more complex and range from drought and climate change to bad governance and state collapse.

A child sits at the entrance of a shelter at a camp for displaced people damaged by torrential rains in the Jarrahi district of Yemen's western province of Hodeidah. (AFP)

More than two months after the grain deal was signed, famine continues to stalk the most food-insecure regions of the world, particularly Yemen and parts of East Africa, where commodity prices remain stubbornly high, hunger-relief operations face disruption and drought are destroying crops and livestock.

The prices of imported goods and commodities have been rising in the Middle East and North Africa region since early 2021, linked to growing demand as economies began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic food prices have risen by more than 15 percent in more than 50 countries, while inflation is running in triple digits in Lebanon, Venezuela, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, which measures monthly changes in the cost of a basket of key food items, prices hit an all-time high in March this year. By the end of April, the international price of some varieties of wheat had reached $477 a ton — an increase of 53 percent on 2021 figures.

“These rising global prices got transferred to local economies, particularly in import- and aid-dependent countries, compromising the access of already vulnerable populations to an affordable diet,” said Yahia.

A recent report from Deep Knowledge Analytics, titled Global Food Security Q2 2022, found that 868 million people in 25 countries are at “high risk and deteriorating,” based on an evaluation of their food systems and economic resilience.


* 345m people in 82 countries face acute food insecurity.

* 50m people in 45 countries are on the brink of famine.

Source: WFP

Among the lowest-ranking countries are Syria (148th) and Yemen (160th), both of which are in the grip of multiple, overlapping crises fueled by war.

The report also found that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a 25 percent increase in the number of countries that have restrictions on food exports in place.

By the end of March this year, about 53 new policies directly affecting the food trade had been adopted globally, of which 31 restricted exports in general and nine limited wheat exports specifically, contributing to a further spike in prices.

Simultaneously, the price of fertilizers has risen by 30 percent since the beginning of this year, contributing to reductions in crop yields worldwide.

Despite all these supply-side challenges, there are at least signs the supply of Black Sea grain is stabilizing.

“Since Aug. 1, more than 4.3 million metric tonnes of food have been moved, bound for 29 countries across three continents,” Amir Abdulla, the UN coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, told Arab News.

Currently, the Black Sea Grain Initiative facilitates exports from three Ukrainian ports, feeding into the global food market while at the same time freeing up the country’s silos to accommodate the next harvest.

“Although the war had an impact on agricultural production, there is still a lot of grain, other foodstuffs and ammonia to be exported in the coming months,” said Abdulla.

In Ethiopia, the value of school meals is equivalent to approximately 10 percent of household income. When several children are enrolled in school, the provision of school meals can translate into substantial savings. (AFP)

Ukrainian grain silos held an estimated 20 million tons of grain in August this year. An additional 19.5 million tons of harvested wheat was expected over the remainder of the summer and 38.2 million metric tons of feed grain is expected in the fall.

“This means that storage and silos must be urgently emptied of last year’s harvest,” said Abdulla.

The grain initiative gives Ukrainian farmers restored access to export markets at competitive prices, as well as incentives to plan for the 2023 harvest, which will be critical in efforts to avoid another global grain shortage.

As of mid-September, about 140 vessels had sailed from Ukraine’s ports carrying more than 3 million tons of food, including critical grain supplies such as wheat, corn and barley, sunflower and other oilseed products, and soya beans.

Among them were four vessels chartered by the WFP to transport about 128,000 tons of grain destined for Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

As an aid agency that sourced 40 percent of its emergency wheat supplies from Ukraine, the WFP’s humanitarian response was severely disrupted by the Russian invasion.

Understandably, therefore, the “WFP has supported the Black Sea Grain Initiative, providing expert advice on shipping and logistics during negotiations,” Yahia said.

Hungry Yemenis displaced by conflict collect food aid. (AFP)

The MV Brave Commander was the first ship chartered by the WFP under the initiative. It transported about 30,000 tons of wheat — enough to feed 1.5 million people for a month — to Ethiopia, where prolonged drought and civil conflict have pushed millions into acute food insecurity.

“In total, WFP has already procured some 300,000 metric tons of wheat grain from Ukrainian suppliers since the signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” said Yahia.

While the initiative has provided a much-needed respite, most indicators suggest the UN Sustainable Development Goal of achieving “zero hunger” will not be achieved by the end of the decade.

In fact, experts say much of the progress that had been made in this area in recent decades is being undone by unforeseen setbacks and crises.

Underlining this point, Yahia told Arab News: “The world is moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

“And the crisis may not yet have reached its peak; 2023 could be worse if we do not get ahead of the situation.”


Biden tries to reassure allies of continued US support for Ukraine after Congress drops aid request

Biden tries to reassure allies of continued US support for Ukraine after Congress drops aid request
Updated 04 October 2023

Biden tries to reassure allies of continued US support for Ukraine after Congress drops aid request

Biden tries to reassure allies of continued US support for Ukraine after Congress drops aid request

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden gathered other world powers Tuesday to coordinate on Ukraine as it battles Russia in a war now almost 20 months long — a deliberate show of US support at a time when the future of its aid is entangled with a volatile faction of House Republicans who want to cut off money to Kyiv.

The phone call — convened by the United States and joined by key allies in Europe as well as the leaders of Canada and Japan — was held three days after Biden signed legislation hastily sent to him by Congress that kept the federal government funded but left off billions in funding for Ukraine’s war effort that the White House had vigorously backed.

All the countries that participated in the call stressed that their backing of Ukraine remains unchanged, and no one questioned whether US support of Kyiv was in doubt, according to the White House. But the administration sternly warned Tuesday that Congress must not let the flow of aid be disrupted, lest Russian President Vladimir Putin exploit any lapses to his advantage.

“Time is not our friend,” said John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. He warned that any gaps in US support “will make Putin believe he can wait us out.”

Kirby said the current tranche of congressionally-approved US aid would be enough to help Ukraine for another “couple of weeks” or a “couple of months,” although the precise estimate would hinge on current battlefield conditions.

The outlook for the future of Ukraine aid has been murky at best after Biden on Saturday signed a bill to fund US government operations through mid-November that ignored the billions in additional funds for Kyiv requested by Biden in late August. The president, as well as congressional Democratic leaders, had stressed after the vote that they had expected then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to follow through on his public commitment to Ukraine aid even as Republican resistance to it continues.

Biden went as far as to imply that e had a deal with McCarthy to move Ukraine aid once the government was funded, although the speaker has denied that is the case and the White House has refused to elaborate on the president’s remarks. Meanwhile, McCarthy signaled over the weekend that he supports linking new Ukraine funding to security improvements at the US border with Mexico. Kirby said Tuesday that the White House supports both issues on their own merits but not tied together.

McCarthy was ejected from his own job on Tuesday in dramatic fashion on the House floor. Even as the White House said it was staying out of his fight to keep the speaker’s gavel, Kirby emphasized that other House GOP leaders support Ukraine aid, not just McCarthy himself.

In Poland, President Andrzej Duda said after the call that Biden had assured the group of continued US support for Ukraine and of his strong conviction that Congress will not walk away.

“Everyone took the floor. The main subject was Ukraine, the situation in Ukraine,” Duda said at a news conference in Kielce, Poland. “President Joe Biden began with telling us about the situation in the US and what is the real political situation around Ukraine. He assured us that there is backing for the continuing support for Ukraine, first of all for the military support.

He said that he will get that backing in the Congress.”

Duda said Biden assured the leaders that support for Ukraine in the US Congress is much broader than media reports suggest. He said Biden called on the participants to continue their support for Ukraine and that everyone assured him that they would.

Kirby added that the other leaders weren’t concerned about whether US would stop backing Ukraine: “They understand what’s going up on Capitol Hill,” he said.

Others on the call included the leaders of Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Romania, Britain, the European Commission and the European Council. France’s foreign minister also participated, the White House said. French President Emmanuel Macron was not available due to scheduling issues, according to a US administration official.

The group also discussed how to provide Ukraine with the weapons support and strengthen its air defenses, as well as shoring up its energy infrastructure as the nation girds for a cold winter. The leaders also strategized on how to marshal private donations to aid Ukraine’s economic recovery, according to a White House readout of the call.

“Everyone was saying that this is the next step that will be necessary and for which preparations should begin now,” Duda said of the leaders’ discussion on helping to rebuild Ukraine.

As the White House made its case for continued aid to Ukraine, lawmakers and military veterans rallied outside the US Capitol to make their own call to keep up the funding. Many argued stopping US support to Ukraine would embolden Russia and other rivals to invade other democratic allies after Ukraine, and draw US forces into direct conflict.

Retired Brig. Gen. Mark Arnold, a veteran of the special forces, told the crowd that “the world is watching this debate about abandoning Ukraine.”

“Retreats to isolationism do not work,” Arnold said. China and Russia and other adversaries “will all rise in strength if Ukraine is defeated.”

The exclusion of money for Ukraine came little more than a week after lawmakers met in the Capitol with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He sought to assure them that his military was winning the war, but stressed that additional assistance would be crucial.

Voting in the House last week pointed to the potential trouble ahead. Nearly half of House Republicans voted to cut from a defense spending bill $300 million to train Ukrainian soldiers and buy weapons. The money later was approved separately, but opponents of Ukraine support celebrated their growing numbers.

The US has approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, totaling about $113 billion, with some of that money going toward replenishment of US military equipment that was sent to the front lines. In August, Biden called on Congress to provide for an additional $24 billion.

A bus crash near the Italian city of Venice kills at least 21 people, including Ukrainian tourists

A bus crash near the Italian city of Venice kills at least 21 people, including Ukrainian tourists
Updated 04 October 2023

A bus crash near the Italian city of Venice kills at least 21 people, including Ukrainian tourists

A bus crash near the Italian city of Venice kills at least 21 people, including Ukrainian tourists

ROME: A bus carrying foreign tourists including Ukrainians crashed near the Italian city of Venice when it fell from an elevated street Tuesday, killing at least 21 people and injuring 18 others, authorities said.
Four of the injured were in serious condition following the accident in the Mestre borough, on the mainland opposite the historic old city of Venice, said Renato Boraso, a Venice city official. Two of the dead were children, Venice prefect Michele Di Bari said.
Boraso confirmed that some of the victims are Ukrainians, and said the bus was bringing tourists to a camping site.
Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the scene of the crash was “apocalyptic” and that he had already declared the “city’s mourning” for the “numerous victims” who were on the bus.
According to local media, the bus fell a few meters before crashing close to Mestre’s railway tracks, where it caught fire. Emergency crews were on the scene.
Premier Giorgia Meloni expressed her “deepest sorrow” after the crash.

Kevin McCarthy ousted by US House Republicans in historic vote

Kevin McCarthy ousted by US House Republicans in historic vote
Updated 29 min 55 sec ago

Kevin McCarthy ousted by US House Republicans in historic vote

Kevin McCarthy ousted by US House Republicans in historic vote

WASHINGTON: A handful of Republicans in the US House of Representatives on Tuesday ousted Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as party infighting plunged Congress into further chaos just days after it narrowly averted a government shutdown.

The 216-to-210 vote marked the first time in history that the House removed its leader, with eight Republicans voting with 208 Democrats to remove McCarthy. McCarthy told reporters he would not make another run for speaker.

“I fought for what I believe in,” McCarthy said. “I believe I can continue to fight, but maybe in a different manner.”

The House looked set to go leaderless for at least a week, as multiple Republicans said they planned to meet on Oct. 10 to discuss possible McCarthy successors, with a vote on a new speaker planned for Oct. 11.

Tuesday’s rebellion was led by Representative Matt Gaetz, a far-right Republican from Florida and McCarthy antagonist who finally turned on the speaker after he on Saturday relied on Democratic votes to help pass a bill to avoid a partial government shutdown.

“Kevin McCarthy is a creature of the swamp. He has risen to power by collecting special interest money and redistributing that money in exchange for favors. We are breaking the fever now,” Gaetz told reporters after the vote.

It was the latest moment of high drama in a year when the Republican-controlled House brought Washington to the brink of a catastrophic default on US debt of $31.4 trillion and a partial government shutdown.

Republicans control the chamber by a narrow 221-212 majority, meaning they can afford to lose no more than five votes if Democrats unite in opposition.

McCarthy’s ouster as speaker brings legislative activity in the House to a halt, with another government shutdown deadline looming Nov. 17 if Congress does not extend funding.

The White House said it hoped the House would move swiftly to choose a replacement speaker, a position second in line to the presidency after the vice president.


The vote left Congress in uncharted waters as it scrambles to update farm-subsidy and nutrition programs, pass government funding bills and consider further aid to Ukraine.

It was unclear who would succeed McCarthy.

McCarthy had repeatedly angered Democrats in recent weeks, including by launching an impeachment inquiry into Biden and on Saturday by giving them little time to read a stopgap spending bill to avert a government shutdown that he needed their votes to pass.

Democrats could have saved McCarthy but, after considering it, said they would not help Republicans resolve their own problems.

Other Republican leaders like Steve Scalize and Tom Emmer could possibly be candidates, though neither has publicly expressed interest. Representative Patrick McHenry was named to the post on a temporary basis.

The last two Republican speakers, Paul Ryan and John Boehner, retired from Congress after clashes with their right wing.

In debate on the House floor, Gaetz and a handful of allies criticized McCarthy for relying on Democratic votes to pass temporary funding that headed off a partial government shutdown.

“We need a speaker who will fight for something — anything — other than staying on as speaker,” said Republican Representative Bob Good.

Representative Nancy Mace told reporters she voted to remove McCarthy as speaker because he broke promises to her on improving access to birth control and supporting a bill she wrote on rape kits.

“I’ve made deals with Kevin McCarthy, with the speaker, that he has not kept to help women in this country,” Mace said. “We have done nothing for them.”

McCarthy’s supporters, including some of the chamber’s most vocal conservatives, said McCarthy had successfully limited spending and advanced other conservative priorities even though Democrats control the White House and the Senate.

“Think long and hard before you plunge us into chaos, because that’s where we’re headed,” said Republican Representative Tom Cole.


Democrats said they viewed McCarthy as untrustworthy after he broke a May agreement on spending with Biden.

“Let them wallow in their pigsty of incompetence,” Representative Pramila Jayapal told reporters before the vote.

Gaetz was one of more than a dozen Republicans who repeatedly voted against McCarthy’s bid for speaker in January. McCarthy ultimately secured the gavel after 15 rounds of voting over four days. To win the job, McCarthy agreed to rules that made it easier to challenge his leadership.

McCarthy supporters have said Gaetz was motivated by a hunger for publicity, a chance to win higher office or resentment over an ongoing ethics probe into possible sexual misconduct and illicit drug use.

Gaetz has denied wrongdoing and said he is not motivated by a dislike of McCarthy.

“This isn’t a critique of the individual — it’s a critique of the job. The job hasn’t been done,” he said.

UN approves Haiti force after year of pleas

UN approves Haiti force after year of pleas
Updated 03 October 2023

UN approves Haiti force after year of pleas

UN approves Haiti force after year of pleas
  • The Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation has been in turmoil, with armed gangs taking over parts of the country and unleashing brutal violence

The United Nations Security Council on Monday approved a Kenyan-led mission aiming to bring stability to Haiti, a year after leaders in the violence-ravaged Caribbean nation first pleaded for help.

The Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation has been in turmoil, with armed gangs taking over parts of the country and unleashing brutal violence, and the economy and public health system also in tatters.Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have been calling since late 2022 for international support to back the police force, but much of the global community had been jaded by the failure of earlier interventions in Haiti.

Monday’s resolution passed with 13 votes in favor, with China and Russia abstaining. It was hailed by Haitian Foreign Minister Jean Victor Geneus as bringing a “glimmer of hope for people who have been suffering the consequences of a difficult political, socio-economic, security and humanitarian situation for too long.”

A breakthrough in plans for the force came in July, when Kenya volunteered to lead it and send 1,000 personnel.

“We must not fail the people of Haiti,” Kenyan President William Ruto declared in a statement Tuesday, saying they had “borne the brunt of colonial plunder and repression.”

“This mandate is not only about peace and security, but also about the rebuilding of Haiti — its politics, its economic development, and social stability,” Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua said separately.

The resolution calls for the deployment of a “multinational security support mission” — not officially a UN force — with a “lead country” coordinating with the Haitian government.

The mission is initially approved for one year, with a review after nine months.

The force aims to provide “operational support to the Haitian National Police, including building its capacity through the planning and conduct of joint security support operations,” the resolution says.

The mission will also aim to create conditions to hold elections, which have not taken place in Haiti since 2016.

Guterres in a recent report said that the security situation in Haiti has only grown worse, with gang members both more numerous and better armed than the police.

Nearly 2,800 homicides were recorded in Haiti between October 2022 and June 2023, with 80 minors among the dead, the UN report said.

The US has been advocating a multinational force. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his department would continue working with Congress to provide $100 million in foreign assistance, and that the Pentagon is prepared to provide up to $100 million in enabling support.

But President Joe Biden has made clear he will not put American troops in harm’s way.

On Monday, the White House voiced its “gratitude” to Kenya for taking on leadership of the force, and to nations such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and Antigua for adding manpower.

“It is now crucial that we focus on making progress in mobilizing the international support necessary to deploy this mission,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

For the resolution to pass, China had to choose not to apply its veto. Haiti is one of a dwindling number of nations that recognizes Taiwan, which Beijing claims and has been seeking to isolate on the international stage.

China, in the run-up to the Security Council meeting, voiced doubts and pointed a finger at the United States, highlighting the role of weapons from Florida in aggravating the violence.

Under pressure from Beijing, the resolution expands an embargo on light weapons and ammunition.

Niger says 29 soldiers killed in attack, rejects Algerian mediation

Niger says 29 soldiers killed in attack, rejects Algerian mediation
Updated 03 October 2023

Niger says 29 soldiers killed in attack, rejects Algerian mediation

Niger says 29 soldiers killed in attack, rejects Algerian mediation
  • Niger junta denied it had accepted an offer by Algeria to act as a mediator to solve its political crisis

NIAMEY: At least 29 Niger soldiers were killed in an ambush by insurgents near the country’s border with Mali, the Defense Ministry said, the deadliest attack since the military seized power in a coup in July.

Separately, the Niger junta denied it had accepted an offer by Algeria to act as a mediator to solve its political crisis, even though Algeria had said on Monday it had received official notification of Niger’s acceptance.

Niger and its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, also run by military governments that seized power in coups, are all battling militants linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh  who have killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people in the Sahel region. They signed a security pact last month promising to defend each other against rebels or aggressors.

The attack in Niger took place as soldiers were returning from operations against the militants. They were targeted by more than 100 assailants in vehicles and on motor-bikes using explosive devices and suicide bombers.

“The provisional toll of the attack is as follows: 29 soldiers fell in battle and two were wounded,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement read on Niger national television, adding that several dozen assailants were killed.

It did not specify which group was responsible or when exactly the ambush occurred, but said the military operation took place between Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.

Three days of national mourning have been declared.

The spate of coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since 2020 was partly driven by frustrations among the military and citizens over insecurity. But the violence has increased just as the juntas are kicking out foreign troops that were previously helping fight the militants. United Nations peacekeepers are also leaving.

Insurgents, many with links to Islamic Daesh, have been particularly active along the Mali-Niger border since French and UN troops left southeast Mali, ending crucial air reconnaissance support. West Africa’s regional bloc and Western powers have called on Niger to rapidly restore constitutional rule. But the junta has been dragging its feet.

The junta said in a statement on Monday that it was surprised by the Algeria’s assertion that Niger had agreed for it to act as mediator, and that it rejected its conclusions.