The European Business Council for Africa

The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine has provoked massive hikes in food prices and created the risk of food shortages. We must act now to protect the people affected. Last month, the Commission launched a plan to fight food insecurity and has already started its implementation. We took stock of the situation at the last College of Commissioners.

Food is essential for all of us, but this is particularly the case in developing countries where it represents a dominant part of household expenditure. Many of these countries depend heavily on imported food. North Africa and the Middle East in particular import over 50% of their cereal from Ukraine and Russia. Record food prices preceded the ‘Arab spring’ a decade ago and social tensions might mount again in the region. Others, like for instance Niger, Madagascar or Somalia, already face severe food crises, and Lebanon or Turkey are subject to major economic crises. The South Caucasus countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, are also in great danger due to their extreme reliance on imports from Russia and Ukraine.

Massive hikes in food price combined with rising energy prices have worsened inflation that was already rising before the invasion. It has further increased the pressure on governments’ capacity for public spending which was already affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending more on food means less money for other essentials like education and health care, thus deepening general poverty. Food insecurity inevitably increases inequalities. Around the world,. at least 195 million people were in food crises or worse in 2021, a 25% increase from 2020; the situation is unfortunately projected to get much worse this year.

After the “mask diplomacy” and the “vaccine diplomacy”, we are probably entering now a period of “food diplomacy” and we have to fight an additional “battle of narratives” with the Russian disinformation machinery. We have to be clear about the sources of the serious difficulties in the global food market: it is exclusively Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has put world's food supplies in peril.

In 2021, Russia and Ukraine were among the top world exporters of cereals and sunflower seeds and oil with Ukraine accounting for over 50% of world trade of sunflower oil. Russia is occupying or shelling parts of arable Ukrainian land and it is estimated that 49% of winter wheat, 38% of rye and 63% of corn to be harvested in summer 2022 is situated in zones that are at risk. Consequently, between 20% and 30% of the areas under winter cereal, maize and sunflower seed production in Ukraine will either remain unharvested or not be planted this spring. The Russian invasion has also brought cereal shipments through the Black Sea to a halt: according to a recent World Food Program report, more than 90 ships are affected today. As a result, an estimated 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize are blocked – 23 and 43 % of their expected exports in 2021/22.

The invasion of Ukraine has also substantially elevated the risk of disruptions in the global fertilizer trade. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers. Last February, Russia banned the export of ammonium nitrate, and in March, it told fertilizer producers to slow their exports in retaliation to Western sanctions.

Our sanctions against Russia do not bear any responsibility for the growing food insecurity: the agricultural sector in Russia is not targeted. Our sanctions do not prohibit the import and transportation of Russian agricultural goods, payment for such Russian exports or the provision of seeds, provided that sanctioned individuals or entities are not involved.

Sub-Saharan Africa is generally less dependent than North Africa or the Middle East on food imports from Russia and Ukraine, but it will be affected because of pre-existing food insecurity and limited budgetary flexibility to address hikes in food prices, especially in the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, food represents around 40% of household consumption expenditure against 15% in advanced countries. Drought, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now war-induced market disruptions could leave close to 120 million people food insecure, across the continent. West Africa is also particularly vulnerable in this respect: it has seen a series of coups or coup attempts recently.

Many Asian countries are also dependent on cereal imports. China has secured large stocks and reviewed its phytosanitary rules to allow more imports from Russia, but in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, the situation is already very worrying. As major food producers, Brazil and Argentina should rather benefit from the current situation even though rising energy and food prices will also create additional hardship for the poorest people. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries are importers of cereals, but not so much from Russia and Ukraine. However, the price hikes will affect them and they risk also to be hit being fertilizer importers from Russia.

What we have to do
We cannot stand idly by as hunger threatens the world again. We need to act decisively to support the people in need and strengthen the global alliance we have built to condemn this invasion and to keep the pressure on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. The EU has already launched on 23 March a plan to safeguard food security and has started with its implementation.

The first strand of action is obviously to redouble our efforts to stop this war as soon as possible: battlefields must again become fields of wheat, corn and sunflower. The reports of war crimes committed by Russian forces that are reaching us add to this urgency. This is the purpose, in particular, of the unprecedented sanctions that we have already adopted and are in the process of strengthening, and of the significant aid that we are providing to the Ukrainian government, particularly in terms of military equipment.

We also need to be more active in countering Russian disinformation, which unfortunately finds an echo in various parts of the world. Russian aggression bears all the responsibility for the growing food insecurity and we need to make this clear to our interlocutors worldwide.

We must help Ukraine to maintain its economic activity and keep producing agricultural products. This aid must cover seeds, fertilizers and export routes if the ports remain blocked. Ukraine's connection to the European electricity grid is thus a significant contribution to this. Increasing economic help to Ukraine is also essential to avoid a major humanitarian crisis in Ukraine itself and a mass exodus of its population.

We have to keep global commodities markets open, address speculation and support the multilateral food system, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program. Through close international cooperation, we must prevent the risk of excessive build-up of stocks that could only feed price speculation. We will discuss the way to address these issues it at a special FAO Emergency session on 8 April.

We will also be proactive to deal with food insecurity at the G7, the G20, the United Nations and the international financial institutions, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. President Macron already proposed a multi-layered approach at the recent G7 Summit called Food and Agriculture Resilience Mechanism (FARM).

We also have to help our partners in the developing and emerging world with financial and other support. The EU has already allocated €2.5 billion in international assistance with a nutrition objective for 2021–2024, (€1.4 billion for development and €1.1 billion for humanitarian aid), supporting food systems in about 70 partner countries. We are working to build up an additional food facility to deal with the emergency, in particular in the MENA region. At the recent high-level event on food security in the Sahel, the EU announced an additional €67 million to fight hunger in the region, bringing the total to €240 million in 2022 so far. To enhance the sustainability of food systems, the EU has also set aside €654 million for 2021-2024, out of these €314 million will be made available before the end of 2022.

There are indeed also rising concerns among developing countries that a “quickly cooked” western response in form of food exports could damage local production and this fear is not always unjustified. To avoid it, we need to help our partners more actively to become self-sufficient. For example, a joint initiative was launched at the EU-AU Summit last February to promote protein crops in Africa, such as beans, oil-rich pulses or those from shrubs and bushes, for human consumption or animal feed. We need to accelerate its implementation.

As we did during the pandemic, we need to work on this issue with a Team Europe approach building a close coordination between the EEAS, the European Commission, the aid agencies of our member states and European financial institutions.

The way we address the global food insecurity crisis today will be decisive for Europe's geopolitical position in the world tomorrow.