UN officials are in last-ditch negotiations to make sure a deal which allows Ukraine to export grain by sea is renewed before it expires on 18 May.
Thanks to the agreement between the UN, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, more than 30 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been shipped out of the Black Sea through a safe corridor.
However, Russia is threatening to pull out of the deal because it says Western sanctions are hampering its own agricultural exports.
Why was the grain deal needed?
Ukraine is a major global exporter of sunflower, maize, wheat and barley.
When Russia invaded in February 2022, its naval vessels blockaded Ukraine’s ports, trapping some 20 million tonnes of grain.
That sent global food prices rocketing.
Food supplies were particularly threatened in Middle Eastern and African countries which rely heavily on Ukrainian grain.
The UN says prices of staple foods rose across these regions by an average of 30%. It warned that 44 million people in 38 countries were facing “emergency levels of hunger”.
“UN officials were worried about the Horn of Africa, where drought was already pushing countries towards famine conditions, and a lack of grain was making things worse,” says Richard Gowan from The International Crisis Group, which works to prevent conflict.
How can the deal be extended?
The arrangement is meant to be extended for 120 days at a time, and was last renewed on 18 March.
However, Russia only agreed to a 60-day extension,and is now threatening to pull out altogether.
It wants Russian producers to export more food and fertiliser to the rest of the world, but says Western sanctions are getting in the way.
There are no specific sanctions against Russian agricultural exports, but Moscow argues other restrictions mean international banks, insurers and shippers are reluctant to do business with its exporters.
UN officials are trying to broker a compromise.
Russia previously withdrew from the deal in November 2022, accusing Ukraine of launching a “massive” drone attack on its fleet in Crimea from vessels in the safe shipping corridor.
However, it rejoined a few days later.
How does the grain corridor work?
On 22 July 2022, Russia and Ukraine signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative, with the support of the UN and Turkey.
It let cargo ships pass safely through the Black Sea to and from the ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi.
The first grain shipments started in early August, using a corridor 310 nautical miles long and three nautical miles wide.
According to the UN’s Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), which oversees the scheme, more than 30 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been shipped from Ukraine, as well as fertiliser.
These extra supplies were a major factor in lowering world food prices.
Prices started falling in spring 2022, ahead of an expected deal, and are now lower than they were before Russia’s invasion.
How much grain is being exported?
Ukraine is exporting 30% less food that it did before the Russian invasion, according to its agriculture ministry.
This is partly because farmers are producing less, due to the fighting across large parts of the country.
However, Ukraine’s government says Russia has been delaying cargo ships heading to ports to pick up produce.
Under the deal, Russia has the right to inspect ships to make sure they aren’t bringing cargo into Ukraine, such as weapons.
“Ukraine has accused it of being overly picky with the inspections,” says Bridget Diakun, from the shipping journal Lloyds List.
“There is usually a queue of about 100 ships in the entrance to the Black Sea.”
Where are Ukraine’s exports going?
Only about a quarter of Ukraine’s food exports have been going to the world’s poorest countries, according to UN figures:
- 47% has gone to “high-income countries” including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands
- 26% has gone to “upper-middle income countries” such as Turkey and China
- 27% has gone to “low and lower-middle income countries” like Egypt, Kenya and Sudan
Russian president Vladimir Putin has criticised Ukraine for not exporting more of its foodstuffs to developing countries.
However, the UN says the exports have benefited needy people around the world because they calmed international food markets, bringing food prices under control.
In 2022, more of half of the wheat grain procured by the United Nations World Food Programme came from Ukraine.
Between August 2022 and the end of the year, it sent 13 ships from Ukraine carrying a total of over 380,000 tonnes of wheat to Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Correction 17 March 2023: A reference to the volume of the WFP’s wheat grain procurement was amended.