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What Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative means for global hunger

Photo of sack of wheat from Ukraine

CARE has worked with the UN's World Food Program to distribute sacks of wheat from Ukraine to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

CARE has worked with the UN's World Food Program to distribute sacks of wheat from Ukraine to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

War exacts a terrible cost on the world’s most vulnerable people. Because of our interconnected global food supply chain, this goes far beyond those in the immediate conflict zone.

Following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, prices spiked worldwide for commodities like grain, as well as essential resources for agricultural production like fertilizer, seeds, and gasoline. From consumers in Lebanon that could not afford buying basic food items, to small-scale producers in Malawi not able to plant their crops, no one was spared the conflict’s impact on food production. Women bear the burden of this food crisis, disproportionately making sacrifices to feed their families.

Countries already facing humanitarian crisis and relying on food aid shipments, like Somalia or Yemen, were amongst the hardest hit. Communities in these places are already facing crisis-level food insecurity, with many living at the brink of famine.

Detail of a arm band used to measure child malnutrition
A health officer uses a mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) band to measure child malnutrition. Photo: Josh Estey/CARE

“Due to the collapse of this deal, we are anticipating a rise in global prices which will lead to local food prices beyond the reach of many families already faced with acute food insecurity, putting thousands of lives at risk, and worsening the crisis they face,” said Ummy Dubrow, Deputy Country Director of CARE Somalia.

According to a report just released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the war in Ukraine alone means at least 23 million more people globally are now undernourished. This is equivalent to the entire population of Syria, or three times the population of New York City.

This is why the Black Sea Initiative was so important. Launched roughly one year ago, under the support of the United Nations and the government of Turkey, it allowed Ukrainian and Russian food and fertilizer exports to be exempted from naval blockades and military attacks.

Photo of cargo ship containing grain
Photo: U.S. Embassy, Kyiv Ukraine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was not a panacea by any means. It did not exempt anyone from the ripple effects of higher fuel prices, for example, nor did it reverse the pre-existing high global food insecurity levels driven by inequality, social injustice, conflicts, and climate change. But it blunted some of the worst effects of a conflict involving two of the world’s top breadbaskets.

Now, after more than 30 million tons of foodstuffs have been shipped from Ukraine during the war, thanks to the agreement, this arrangement is now imperiled by Russia’s withdrawal, announced Monday.

As a result, millions of people in countries in need, especially refugees, and the poorest of the poor, will face hunger.  

Without the agreement, there is a huge risk of food prices soaring massively again, so poverty and food insecurity will keep growing in dozens of countries around the world. Indeed, grain prices are already up on the news of Russia’s decision.

Lack of access to fertilizers will also hit millions of small-scale producers globally, affecting the yields and endangering their communities.

Portrait of a farmer kneeling in a field, holding crops.
Abdulkareem, 25, is a farmer in Yemen with his 80-year-old father Mohsen. “Recently, my father was taken ill with a critical medical condition, and we had to sell most of our farmlands to pay for his treatment," he said. "We couldn’t even cultivate our remaining land because of the [local] fighting and a lack of seeds and fuel.” Photo: Abdulrahman Alhobishi/CARE Yemen

“Ultimately, participation in these agreements is a choice,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “But, struggling people everywhere and developing countries don’t have a choice.  Hundreds of millions of people face hunger and consumers are confronting a global cost-of-living crisis. They will pay the price.”

At CARE, we believe that humanitarian considerations and the protection of the human right of people globally to feed themselves should trump geopolitics, which is why we applauded the Black Sea Initiative a year ago. It has worked as we hoped.

Now, we are alarmed at the prospect of this initiatives’ end, knowing that it will lead to this conflict taking more casualties, thousands of miles from the battlefield.

This is why we strongly urge all parties to uphold their obligations in the agreement and remain at the negotiating table to find an alternative solution. If necessary, we also ask that all parties take steps to soften the impact that will flow from the initiative’s collapse.

Above all, we urge leadership and genuine commitment to ensure that the world’s hungriest are not additional casualties of war.

Juan Echanove is CARE’s Associate Vice-President for Food Systems.

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