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.”


Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano
Updated 58 min 25 sec ago

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano

Rains unleashed by typhoon worry thousands of people fleeing restive Philippine volcano
  • More than 6,000 villagers have been forced to leave rural communities within a 6-kilometer radius of Mayon volcano’s crater

BONGA, Philippines: Thousands of people who fled their homes in the central Philippines to escape a restive volcano have to contend with another threat that’s complicating the ongoing evacuations: monsoon rains that could be unleashed by an approaching typhoon.
More than 6,000 villagers have been forced to leave rural communities within a 6-kilometer radius of Mayon volcano’s crater in northeastern Albay province. Thousands more need to be moved to safety from the permanent danger zone, officials said.
Others living outside the perimeter have packed their bags and voluntarily left with their children for evacuation centers in Albay, which was placed under a state of calamity on Friday to allow more rapid disbursement of emergency funds in case a major eruption unfolds.
Authorities raised the alert level for the volcano on Thursday after superheated streams of gas, debris and rocks cascaded down its upper slope, indicating activity below the surface that could precede a hazardous eruption within days or weeks.
A key tourist draw for its picturesque conical shape, the 2,462-meter Mayon is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. It last erupted violently in 2018, displacing tens of thousands of villagers.
Authorities warned that Typhoon Guchol, which is approaching the Philippines from the Pacific but is projected to skirt the archipelago, may still dump heavy rains — an unwelcome news for those living near Mayon’s slopes.
“There’s a typhoon and floodwaters may rush down Mayon and swamp this village. That’s one of our fears,” Villamor Lopez, a house painter, said.
He sat worriedly with his relatives clinging to their bags of clothes, rice in pouches and bottles of drinking water on a pickup truck hauling villagers from Daraga town in Albay to an emergency shelter several kilometers (miles) away.
Other residents chatted on a roadside near a chapel, still undecided whether to leave.
A loudspeaker in their laid-back community of low-slung rural houses and narrow dirt alleys warned people to prepare to evacuate anytime if the situation worsens. In the overcast sky above them, the volcano laid hidden by thick rainclouds.
Village leader Dennis Bon, who was preparing to drive Lopez and others to the shelter, said he would not risk waiting until the last minute.
“We have children, persons with disabilities and elderly residents here,” Bon said, before he drove off.
Albay Gov. Edcel Greco Lagman and Welfare Secretary Rex Gatchalian said they were prepared if monsoon rains were to trigger mudflows and rockfalls.
“We will still make sure that we will have no casualties from any compounded calamities,” Lagman said.
Despite growing worries among many villagers, those who have survived Mayon’s eruptions over decades were taking the latest threats in stride.
In Bonga village near the volcano, a few men gingerly took a bath in a stream of spring water flowing down Mayon’s lush foothills and washed two motorcycles near boulders as big as cars that had rolled down years ago during past eruptions.
They shrugged and smiled when asked if the volcano’s new rumblings had struck fear.
The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” the area around the ocean rim where tectonic plates meet that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. A long-dormant volcano, Mount Pinatubo, blew its top north of Manila in 1991 in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds of people.

Annecy knife attack suspect taken to face French judge — media

Annecy knife attack suspect taken to face French judge — media
Updated 10 June 2023

Annecy knife attack suspect taken to face French judge — media

Annecy knife attack suspect taken to face French judge — media

PARIS: The suspect in a knife attack that wounded four toddlers and two pensioners in the southeastern French town of Annecy was taken from the police station where he was in custody to be presented before a judge on Saturday, BFM television reports.
BFM images showed the suspect being carried on a stretcher by police to a black car waiting at the back of the police station.
Reuters images showed the black car and several police cars leaving the police station.
Annecy prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis, who is leading the investigation into Thursday’s attack, was due to hold a news conference later on Saturday.
The suspect, a 31-year old Syrian refugee, is under investigation for attempted murder. So far the prosecutor has said there was no indication that terrorism was the assailant’s motivation.

Daesh claims responsibility for suicide bombing on memorial service in northeast Afghanistan

Daesh claims responsibility for suicide bombing on memorial service in northeast Afghanistan
Updated 10 June 2023

Daesh claims responsibility for suicide bombing on memorial service in northeast Afghanistan

Daesh claims responsibility for suicide bombing on memorial service in northeast Afghanistan
  • Militant group’s statement gives higher casualty figures than those provided by the Taliban-run government
  • Daesh has increased its attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021

ISLAMABAD: The Daesh group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a memorial service in northeast Afghanistan that killed at least 13 people and wounded 30 others.
In a statement late Friday, the Daesh regional affiliate — known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province — said the attacker targeted the service near Nabawi Mosque in the city of Faizabad in Badakhshan province on Thursday.
The militant group’s statement gave higher casualty figures than those provided by the Taliban-run government, claiming that at least 20 senior Taliban officials died and 50 others were injured.
The memorial service was being held for Nisar Ahmad Ahmadi, the deputy governor of Badakhshan killed in a car bombing on Tuesday in Faizabad. That attack, which killed the deputy governor’s driver and wounded 10 others, was also claimed by the Daesh group.
A former Taliban police official was among those killed in the memorial service explosion, said the Taliban interior ministry spokesman, Abdul Nafi Takor.
The Daesh group has increased its attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021, following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops after two decades of war. Targets have included Taliban patrols and members of Afghanistan’s Shiite minority.
Last December, a car bombing killed Badakhshan’s provincial police chief as he was on his way to work. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it parked an explosive-laden car on the road and detonated it when the police chief’s car passed by.

How an expat Egyptian got elected by focusing on America

How an expat Egyptian got elected by focusing on America
Updated 10 June 2023

How an expat Egyptian got elected by focusing on America

How an expat Egyptian got elected by focusing on America
  • Egyptian-American Bolingbrook Illinois Mayor Mary Basta says connecting with local community paves the way for a better understanding of Arab immigrants with Middle Eastern roots

CHICAGO: An Egyptian-American immigrant successful in US political and activism life says that the key to countering pro-Israel propaganda is to make a direct connection with Americans and educate them on the truth about the Middle East conflict.

Mary Basta, who came to America from Egypt in the 1970s at the age of five, pursued a career in hospitality in Nashville, Tennessee, but quickly found herself rising in local politics to become the mayor of the 16th-largest city in Illinois, a state that has 1,456 cities.

Basta told Arab News on Wednesday (June 7) that she achieved her meteoric rise in American politics by focusing on “American interests” first before focusing on the interests of her former homeland Egypt — though not forgetting that heritage either.

“Egyptians and Middle Eastern in general is a little bit unique. We have a hard time because we can’t let go. We always carry the burden on our shoulders of where we are from and the issues that we face. We underwent a revolution and we changed two presidents. And you are always carrying that and you always feel like this is my home, this is my country and my culture and what can I do to help. But for us, we have lots of different issues that we encounter here. Both, one, we aren’t pure Americans so therefore you always feel you have to work harder. You have to achieve more. And then from our family, you always have to be this engineer, or doctor, dentist or this lawyer, because anything else you haven’t been successful in your life,” Basta said.

“So, there are definitely some high benchmarks that we instill in ourselves, and our families instill in us, and trying to live up to those expectations is very hard, while still trying to maintain our traditions and our cultures. Some people hold on to those like they are holding on to life, and some people are glad to get rid of them as soon as possible. So, it is hard to navigate between being true to yourself, your culture, as well as what we are thinking and where your current situation is. It’s not always when in Rome do as the Romans do. Sometimes you have to do as the Greeks do.”

Basta told Arab News that she and her family came to the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook in 2003 to find a better life, volunteering to assist the local schools and local government to help her children.

Less than 16 years later, Basta entered local politics — what she prefers to call “public service” — serving as a volunteer on several Bolingbrook commissions, including the powerful Zoning Board, which oversees community and business expansion.

She quickly was named chairwoman. Soon after, in 2019, she was named by the city’s mayor and board to fill a vacancy as one of the village’s six trustees. Within a year, after the mayor left office, in 2020, her board colleagues elected her as mayor. And the following year, in 2021, was elected by a majority of the village’s 75,000 residents to a four-year term as the mayor, which she is now serving.

Basta said that her rapid rise in politics, which dwarfs the decades-long efforts of other Arab Americans to enter politics, is different because she focused her attention first on serving the residents of Bolingbrook rather than dedicating her life to changing the politics of the Middle East more than 9,000 miles away.

“This will always be home to my children, where I can say Egypt is my home or even Nashville, but Bolingbrook will be where my kids were born and where they grew up and where they graduated from. So I want that to be a place that they are proud of to bring their kids back here, even grandkids, and say this is where I grew up, this is where I was born, this is my soccer field, this is my school. For that to be something to be proud of it takes effort and it takes work and it takes long-term planning and thinking. So, putting the right people in place, putting the right policies in place, and then watching them getting carried out from that point,” Basta said.

“It’s not about me, it is about we. It’s not what I want but it’s what is better for the community.”

Basta said that running for American political office is much like running a business. It takes “a thick skin” to withstand the criticism, as well as a local focus on the community that elected you. She said that she did face the same discrimination and stereotype “bullying” many Arabs, Christian and Muslims have faced, but she persevered.

“Today’s kids have not seen bullying until you see a little foreign girl growing up in a very white, I am going to use the term redneck, portion of Nashville, Tennessee. So, I definitely know what bullying is. I definitely felt it growing up as being someone who is different. Not just in the way that I looked but also in the culture. As you know, Middle Eastern culture is very different from that in the US, especially for females,” Basta said.

Basta made her comments during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” broadcast Wednesday May 31 live in Detroit and Washington D.C. on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.

You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.

Six civilians killed in Somalia hotel siege by Al-Shabab militants

Six civilians killed in Somalia hotel siege by Al-Shabab militants
Updated 10 June 2023

Six civilians killed in Somalia hotel siege by Al-Shabab militants

Six civilians killed in Somalia hotel siege by Al-Shabab militants
  • Al-Qaeda-linked militants have been waging an insurgency against the government for more than 15 years and have often targeted hotels

MOGADISHU: Six civilians were killed and 10 wounded in a six-hour siege by Islamist Al-Shabab militants at a beachside hotel in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, police said Saturday.

The Al-Qaeda-linked militants have been waging an insurgency against the internationally backed federal government for more than 15 years and have often targeted hotels, which tend to host high-ranking Somali and foreign officials.

“Six civilians were martyred in the attack... and 10 others were wounded. Three brave members of the security forces were martyred during the rescue operation,” the Somali Police Force said in a statement.

The assault, for which Al-Shabab claimed responsibility, began just before 8 p.m. on Friday (1700 GMT) when seven attackers stormed the Pearl Beach hotel, a popular spot at Lido Beach along Mogadishu’s coastline.

It ended at around 2 am, police said, after a fierce gunfight between security forces and the militants, all of whom were killed during the battle.

“The security forces managed to rescue 84 people including women and children and elderly people,” the police statement added.

Witnesses reported hearing gunfire and explosions at the hotel on Lido beach.

“I was near the Pearl Beach restaurant when (a) heavy explosion occurred in front of the building,” one witness, Abdirahim Ali, said.

“I have managed to flee but there was heavy gunfire afterwards and the security forces rushed to the area.”

Yaasin Nur was at the restaurant and said it was “full of people as it was recently renovated.”

“I’m worried because there are several of my colleagues who went there and two of them are not responding to their phones,” he said.

Several ambulances were also parked nearby, an AFP journalist saw.

The attack at Lido beach underscored the endemic security problems in the Horn of Africa country as it struggles to emerge from decades of conflict and natural disasters.

Al-Shabab, which was driven out of Somalia’s main towns and cities by an African Union force, still controls large swathes of countryside and continues to carry out attacks against security and civilian targets, including in the capital.

Last year, Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud launched an “all-out war” against Al-Shabab, rallying Somalis to help flush out members of the militant group he described as “bedbugs.”

His pledge came after 21 people were killed and 117 others were wounded in an Al-Shabab siege on a Mogadishu hotel in August 2022 that lasted 30 hours.

That attack raised serious questions about the security forces, who failed to protect a heavily guarded administrative district.

Two months later, twin car bombings in Mogadishu killed 121 people and injured 333 in the country’s deadliest attack in five years.

The army and militias known as “macawisley” have in recent months retaken swathes of territory in the center of the country in an operation backed by the African Union mission ATMIS and US air strikes.

But Al-Shabab fighters killed 54 Ugandan peacekeepers last month in an attack on an African Union base in the southern town of Bulo Marer.

In August 2020, Al-Shabab launched a large-scale attack on the Elite, another hotel at Lido beach popular with officials, killing 10 civilians and a police officer.

It took security forces four hours to regain control of the site in that attack.

The UN said in November that at least 613 civilians had been killed and 948 injured in violence in Somalia last year, mostly caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attributed to Al-Shabab.

The figures were the highest since 2017 and an increase of more than 30 percent from the previous year.