The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live. This week Jim sat down with Caitlin Welsh, the director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Kremlin’s decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative threaten global food security.
They discussed food insecurity around the world and Russia’s decision to leave the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
Here are five takeaways:
1.) The state of global food insecurity is at its worst. The way Caitlin put it, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could not have come at a worse time in the context of global food insecurity.” Food insecurity has risen for at least the last five years, but it spiked with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Caitlin attributed the steady rise of food insecurity to the three Cs: Covid-19, climate change, and conflict.
2.) Russia's invasion of Ukraine intensified food insecurity around the world. Ukraine has been called a breadbasket of the world. It is a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn, and sunflower oil. Global food prices spiked in the early days of the Russian invasion because of fears that Ukraine would no longer be able to export its agricultural bounty.
3.) The Black Sea Grain Initiative acted as an “escape valve”—lessening pressure on global food markets and stabilizing global food prices. The United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal in July 2022 between Russia and Ukraine to allow for Ukraine’s food and fertilizer exports to pass safely through the Black Sea, the main route for Ukrainian grain to reach world markets. More than thirty million tons of grain were exported while the deal was in effect. It's a major reason that grain fell globally after their initial spike.
4.) Russia is once again weaponizing Ukraine’s agricultural exports. Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative last month, citing western sanctions on its own food and fertilizer exports as the reason. However, as Caitlin noted, “western sanctions do not target Russia’s agricultural sector.” In addition to leaving the deal, Russia began attacking grain storage and export facilities in Odesa and other Ukrainian ports, which until now had largely been spared from bombings. The Russian defense ministry also warned that any ship that tries to pass the Russian blockade will be treated as hostile vessels and subject to attack. Caitlin argued that “Ukraine’s agriculture sector has become a major theater—if not the major theater—in Russia’s war in Ukraine.” Higher food prices will be felt world-wide, but will have their greatest impact on low- and middle-income countries. The Kremlin seems to be calculating that if it can drive global food prices higher that support for Ukraine will fade.
5.) But the Kremlin might not get its way. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a two-day Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg at the end of July, where he offered to send thousands of tons of free grain to several African countries and to cancel $23 billion in debt. However, turnout at the meeting was poor. Nor did the offer of free grain spare Russia from heavy criticism for leaving the Black Sea grain deal. A top Kenyan diplomat went so far as to describe the move as a “stab in the back.” Caitlin concluded that Putin’s offer isn’t likely to lead to “countries lining up behind Russia to the extent that Russia probably wants.”
If you’re looking for more of Caitlin’s analysis of global food insecurity, check out her assessment of the harm the war has done to the global food supply. She also joined the truth of the matter podcast to analyze the consequences of Russia’s decision to leave the grain deal.
The United Nations maintains a database with information about exports through the grain deal.
An episode of CFR's Why It Matters explores how Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked a fertilizer crisis worldwide.