The African Union has warned EU leaders that Moscow’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports risks “a catastrophic scenario” of food shortages and price rises.
Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, who chairs the union, said “the worst is perhaps ahead of us” if current global food supply trends continue.
Speaking via video link to the 27 EU leaders meeting in Brussels, Sall said African countries had been hit hard by the global food crisis, because of their “strong dependence” on Russian and Ukrainian wheat. The situation was “worrying” for a continent that has 282 million people that did not get enough to eat, he said.
“In the immediate future, we would like everything to be done to release available grain stocks and ensure transport and access to the market, to avoid a catastrophic scenario of shortages and generalised high prices,” Sall said.
Before the war, African countries imported 44% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine alone grew enough food for 400 million people.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports is contributing to what analysts have called a “perfect storm” for global food supplies, as farmers face rising oil and fertiliser costs and the lingering effect of coronavirus labour restrictions. Drought is also threatening to reduce wheat harvests in countries including France, the US and India.
Proposals to end the blockade have been made. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said on Tuesday that he and the German chancellor had put to Vladimir Putin ending the blockade under the terms of a UN resolution. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will visit next week for talks to address among other things opening a Black Sea corridor for Ukrainian grain exports.
The head of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned earlier this month that nearly 49 million people in 43 countries were on the edge of famine. “In many countries we are forced to make the heartbreaking decision to take food from hungry children to give it to starving children,” he said.
Sall said the price of fertiliser was now three times higher than in 2021, while cereal yields in Africa were forecast to be 20-50% lower this year.
He also blamed EU sanctions on Russian banks for exacerbating the problem: “When the Swift system is disturbed, this means that even if the products exist, payment becomes more complicated, even impossible.”
The EU has cut some of Russia’s largest banks out of the Belgian-headquartered Swift interbank messaging system, making it almost impossible to do business with them.
The African Union leader said he supported proposals for the UN to coordinate efforts to release supplies from Ukrainian ports.
Lithuania has proposed that a naval “coalition of the willing” should lift the Black Sea blockade. Under the Lithuanian plan, the UN would call on Russia to ensure safe passage for ships and Ukraine to remove mines from the port of Odesa, a defensive measure to protect the strategic site.
After the talks with Sall, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, tweeted: “Russia is using food as weapon of war. Destroying crops, blocking tonnes of grain, risking global famine. EU is sparing no efforts to free Ukraine’s exports over land and exploring alternative sea routes.”
And in a press conference, Michel said opening the Black Sea maritime route “should be the first priority … but we are not certain it will work”.
The European Commission wants to get 20m tonnes of wheat out of Ukraine before the end of July, half of the amount currently stuck in the country. But finding alternatives to sea transport is a huge logistical challenge, as trucks and trains cannot take the same quantity of goods, and face an average wait of 16 days to cross the EU border.
The EU is attempting to help firms create alternative routes, so-called “solidarity lanes”, but senior EU officials have described this as a “gigantic” task. The EU transport commissioner, Adina Vǎlean, said earlier this month that “an astonishing 10,000 barges and almost 300 large ships are needed to carry 20m tonnes of grains” if it is to be exported via alternative EU ports.
Some EU diplomats believe Russia wants to add fuel to the fire of a global food crisis, with the aim of stoking a wave of migration from the Middle East and Africa that could destabilise European countries.
Moscow has blamed the global food crisis on western sanctions. Lavrov, said on Tuesday his country would guarantee “free export of Ukraine grain by ships that are now locked in Ukrainian ports” if Ukraine removed mines from its coastal waters.
He said western countries had created “a flurry of artificial problems” by closing their ports to Russian vessels, a sanction passed by the EU and the UK.