KYIV – Ukraine is seeking a way out of the country’s grain and vegetable oil by breaking a month-long blockade of the Azov Sea and the Black Sea by the Russian navy and moving further by land.
The war, coupled with Western sanctions against Russia, has pushed up the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer and energy.
This in turn threatens a global food crisis as many countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports, including some of the poorest.
Russia and Ukraine together account for about one-third of the global wheat supply, and their importance has been underscored by Indian export bans and unfavorable crop weather in North America and Western Europe.
Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, while Russia and Belarus – which have supported Moscow in the war and are under sanctions – account for more than 40% of the world’s potash export.
How many grains are stuck in Ukraine?
Grain is one of Ukraine’s major industries, accounting for 21 12.2 billion in total exports in 2021 and about one-fifth of the country’s exports.
Before the war, Ukraine exported 98% of its cereals and oilseeds through the Black Sea, up to 6 million tons per month. Typically, a fraction of its exports go by rail, where transportation costs are higher.
But the country is currently exporting only 1-1.5 million tonnes a month due to blockade of ports and inability of the railway system to cope with the excess.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week accused Russia of using food as a weapon in Ukraine, by providing “hostages” to millions of people around the world, not just Ukrainians. The Kremlin says the West has started the crisis by imposing sanctions on Moscow.
According to a UN food agency official, about 25 million tonnes of grain were stuck in Ukraine in early May due to infrastructural challenges and blockades. As prices rise, UN agencies are having to halve food rations for refugees and displaced people in some parts of the Sahel, for example, due to the huge shortage of funds.
Why can’t the grain land out of Ukraine?
Exporting by train is a challenge because the Ukrainian rail system operates at a different gauge to European neighbors like Poland, so the grain has to be transferred to different trains at the border where there are not many transfers or storage facilities.
Kyiv has also stepped up efforts to send ships via the Romanian Black Sea port Constantar. By mid-May, however, about 240,000 tons of grain – or 1% of the amount stuck in Ukraine – had passed through, its manager Florin Goidia told Reuters.
Grain rerouting in Romania involves loading cargo on barges for transportation to the port of Danube by rail and travel to Constantinople – making the process complicated and expensive.
What other options are being discussed?
Western powers are discussing the idea of establishing a “safe corridor” to allow shipments of grain from Ukrainian ports.
However, officials have warned that such a corridor would not be possible without Russia’s consent.
Ukraine says it needs “security assurances”, Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka told Reuters last week that “having third-country ships in the area … would be an ideal situation.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it would consider lifting sanctions against Russia if it were to consider a UN request for access to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, Interfax news agency reported.
Making things more difficult is the flow of mines into the Black Sea, with each side blaming the other for planting.
The cost of insurance for any ship passing through these shipping lanes will probably be very high.
The situation has become even more urgent due to the lack of storage space in Ukraine, where the next crop will be harvested from July.
According to the research center APK-Inform, up to 35% of Ukraine’s total storage capacity of 61 million tons can still be used by the old 2021 crop when new crops arrive.
(Additional report by Gus Tropez in Paris; by Sylvia Alois; edited by Jason Neely)