The backlash was swift on Monday after Russia refused to extend a deal that allowed Ukraine to export millions of tons of grains, with experts warning that it would help drive food prices higher for the poorest nations.
“The timing of this suspension is nothing short of cruel given that millions of people in dozens of countries are already suffering from double digit food inflation,” the chief economist of the United Nations’ World Food Program, Arif Husain, said. “We must find ways to make food available and affordable for the most vulnerable people and countries.”
In a rebuttal to criticism of Russia for pulling out of the deal, the country’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said that only about 3 percent of Ukrainian grain exports under the pact had gone to low-income countries. He said the arrangement had lost its humanitarian purpose and become strictly commercial, to the sole benefit of Ukraine.
But the supply of grain from Ukraine has always been more about making grain affordable, both for those nations and for aid organizations, then direct sales to poor nations. The deal, formally known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, restored a flow of supplies from Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters, lowering global food commodity prices that had spiked following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
According to a database maintained by the U.N., 98 percent of the deal’s shipments went to commercial buyers, mostly in countries considered high or upper-middle income. Almost a quarter of the deal’s exports went to China. A fifth went to Spain.
The remainder — which is slightly less than the 3 percent the Russian diplomat claimed — was bought by the World Food Programme, which focuses on emergency food supplies. According to the United Nations, the program sourced 80 percent of its global wheat supply from Ukraine during the period of the grain deal, up from previous years. That enabled it to send wheat to eight nations: Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey and Yemen.
Though a small portion of the grain’s shipments go directly to nations struggling with food insecurity, when prices are lower, poorer countries can afford to buy more grain themselves.
Wheat prices dropped by almost 50 percent between May 2022 — when they peaked — and May of this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. On Monday, after Russia said it would not extend the deal, wheat prices fluctuated, and on Tuesday, they rose slightly. While some analysts say that Ukraine has developed enough alternative shipping routes to blunt the loss of the Black Sea lanes, others remain convinced that prices will jump.
David Laborde, the director of the Agrifood Economics division at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which works to increase food production and nutrition in countries with food insecurity, said that prices worldwide would fluctuate depending on whether Ukraine’s exports remained on the market.