(CN) — After 86 days of bloodshed in Ukraine and the start of what many see as a new Cold War, the world is veering dangerously toward serious food shortages and wild price spikes caused by the war.
A blame game over how Russia's invasion of Ukraine is spreading the risk of famine in the poorest parts of the world, sparking a wave of civil unrest and worsening poverty around the globe is turning into a new front in the escalating war between Moscow and the West.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, combat in Donbas was reaching a new horrific phase as Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist forces began ground assaults on the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukrainian forces were fighting back hard but they were at risk of being encircled.
Both cities – each of which had pre-invasion populations of about 100,000 – are starting to see the kind of street fighting and devastation that wrecked Mariupol, a large port city to the southeast that began to be completely controlled by Russian forces this week as thousands of Ukrainian forces holding out inside the Azovstal steelworks plant began surrendering. About 2,000 Ukrainians had laid down their arms as of Friday, according to Russia's defense ministry.
With no sign of a ceasefire any time soon, the war looks like it could drag on for months and cause potential catastrophic damage to the world's food supply, already weakened by drought, the coronavirus pandemic and other problems.
The war is causing additional strains because Ukraine's important Black Sea ports are blocked and the war has caused fuel and fertilizer prices to soar due to the imposition of sanctions on Russia, sending shockwaves around the world and making it harder for farmers to profit.
Ukraine and Russia account for about 12% of the world's traded calories, according to the Economist magazine, whose new edition, entitled “The coming food catastrophe,” warns of looming catastrophic food shortages.
Ukraine's harvests feed an estimated 400 million people, but this year the harvest is expected to be a disaster, perhaps yielding 65% less than last year, according to a Ukrainian expert. There aren't enough farm workers, fighting has made it impossible to plant in places and there is a lack of fertilizer and other basic needs. The European Union is working with Ukraine to ship some of its grains out by rail and road, but these routes are inefficient, experts say.
“The war in Ukraine is now adding a frightening new dimension to this picture of global hunger,” said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, on Thursday, speaking to the U.N. Security Council about specter of famine in parts of the world.
“Russia’s invasion of its neighbor has effectively ended its food exports,” Guterres said. “In April, the World Food Program and its partners distributed food and cash to more than 3 million Ukrainians. Until March, their country was feeding the world with abundant supplies of food.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using food as a weapon by holding global supplies “hostage” as it blocks Ukrainian ports and withholds fertilizer from countries that oppose Russia's invasion.
“The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not – to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people,” Blinken said at the Security Council meeting. The U.S. holds the rotating presidency of the council and chose to focus on the war's impact on food supplies.
“The food supply for millions of Ukrainians and millions more around the world has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military,” Blinken alleged.
Serhii Dvornyk, a member of Ukraine’s mission to the U.N., accused Russia of “stealing” Ukrainian grain. In recent weeks, Russia has allegedly seized farm equipment and grain in silos in territory that has fallen under its control. Ukraine accuses Russia of stealing at least 400,000 tons of grain and trying to sell it abroad.
Accusations of causing hunger and famine in Ukraine is a particularly emotional issue because Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is blamed for starving millions of Ukrainians to death during forced collectivization and rapid industrialization in the early 1930s, a tragedy known as the Holodomor.
Russia has hit back with accusations that the West is to blame because it's imposed tough sanctions on Russia and caused energy prices to soar.
On Thursday, Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and the deputy head of Russia's security council, said Moscow would unblock Ukraine's Black Sea ports once the West lifts its sanctions on Russia.
“Otherwise, there’s no logic: on the one hand, insane sanctions are being imposed against us, on the other hand, they are demanding food supplies,” Medvedev said on social media. “Things don’t work like that, we’re not idiots.”
He added: “Countries importing our wheat and other food products will have a very difficult time without supplies from Russia. And on European and other fields, without our fertilizers, only juicy weeds will grow.”
Russia also argues that Ukraine is partly to blame because it's placed mines in the sea near Odesa, its principal port for exports, to deter a Russian assault.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russian's U.N. ambassador, told the Security Council that the food crisis was a result of the rising costs of insurance, logistics and speculation on Western markets.
Wheat prices have risen 53% since the beginning of the year and jumped 6% on Monday when India said it was suspending exports because it fears not having enough for its own population after it was hit with extreme heat. India is the world's second-largest wheat producer after China, which has warned that heavy rains may result in its worst harvest in years. Drought is threatening wheat harvests elsewhere too, including North America.
The number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat has risen by 440 million to 1.6 billion, according to the Economist, and nearly 250 million are on the verge of famine.
Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of the barley, 15% of the maize and 75% of the sunflower oil.
They provide about half of the cereals shipped to Lebanon and Tunisia and two-thirds of what Libya and Egypt consume.
The Economist warned that the dire situation for global production of wheat may be made worse “by worried politicians.”
“Since the war started, 23 countries from Kazakhstan to Kuwait have declared severe restrictions on food exports that cover 10% of globally traded calories,” the magazine said. “More than one-fifth of all fertilizer exports are restricted. If trade stops, famine will ensue.”
A wave of protests is taking place, including in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and there are concerns of major unrest breaking out.
Some of the worst unrest appears to be taking place in Iran, where security forces are reportedly cracking down on a wave of protests sparked by surging prices for basic needs.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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