Beirut – Normally, a ship carrying corn to the port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon would not cause any fuss. But it gets attention because of its source: the Ukrainian port of Odessa on the Black Sea.
Loaded with more than 26,000 tons of corn to feed chickens, the razoni is emerging from the brink of a Russian war that has threatened food supplies in countries like Lebanon, which has the world’s highest food inflation rate – a staggering 122% – and is dependent on the Black Sea region for what it is. Almost all of her wheat.
The fighting has trapped 20 million tons of grain inside Ukraine, and Razouni’s departure on Monday marked a major first step toward extracting that food supply to farms and bakeries to feed millions of starving poor people in Africa and the Middle East. and parts of Asia.
“Seeing cargo transportation is actually a big deal,” said Jonathan Haines, senior analyst at Gro Intelligence for data and analytics. “That’s 26,000 tons in the 20 million tons scale that’s been locked up—nothing at all…but if we start seeing this, every shipment that goes will increase confidence.”
The small size means that primary shipments leaving the world’s breadbasket won’t lower food prices or ease the global food crisis anytime soon. Plus, experts say most of the trapped grain is meant for animal feed, not for people to eat. This will extend the ramifications of war to the world’s most vulnerable people thousands of miles away in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, where hunger may soon turn into famine and where inflation has pushed the cost of food and energy out of reach for many.
The expected shipment this weekend for farmers in Lebanon is a sign that grain may become more available again, even if at a higher price, Ibrahim Tarshichi, head of the Bekaa Farmers Association, said.
But he said it would not affect his country, where years of endemic corruption and political divisions have turned life upside down. Since 2019, the economy has shrunk by at least 58%, with the currency devaluing so sharply that half the population now lives in poverty.
“I think the crisis will continue as long as operating costs continue to rise and purchasing power is reduced,” Tarchichi said.
The conflict came into sharp relief this week when a section of the massive grain silos in Beirut port collapsed amid a huge cloud of dust, two years after a massive explosion killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more.
While the shipments are symbolic, they did little to allay market fears. Drought and high fertilizer costs have driven grain prices more than 50% higher than they were in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. While Ukraine is the largest supplier of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil to developing countries, it accounts for only 10% of international wheat trade.
There is also little to suggest that the world’s poorest who depend on Ukrainian wheat distributed through UN agencies like the World Food Program will be able to access them anytime soon. Before the war, half of the grain purchased by the World Food Program for distribution came from Ukraine.
The safe passage of the Razuni Pass was secured by a four-month deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey with Ukraine and Russia two weeks ago. The grain corridor through the Black Sea is 111 nautical miles long and 3 nautical miles wide, and drifting explosive mines are dotted with it, slowing down the action.
Three more ships left on Friday for Turkey, Ireland and the United Kingdom. All the ships that have left so far have been stuck there since the start of the war about six months ago.
Under the agreement, some – but not all – of the food exported will go to food-insecure countries. This means that it can take weeks for people to see grain from the new shipments, and even longer to see the effects on higher food prices, said Sean Ferris, an agriculture and markets advisor for Catholic Relief Services and a partner with Catholic Relief. World Food Program Distributions.
In East Africa, thousands of people have died as neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia and Kenya face their worst drought in four decades. Survivors described burying their children as they fled to camps where there is little help.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Somalia and other African countries turned to unconventional grain partners such as India, Turkey and Brazil, but at higher prices. Ferris said prices for critical foods could start to fall within two or three months as markets for imported foods adjust to the advancement of local crops.
Determining who is first in order to buy grain from Ukraine may be influenced by humanitarian needs, but it may also be due to existing business arrangements and commercial interests, including who is willing to pay more, Ferriss said.
“Ukraine is not a charity,” he said. “It will look to get the best deals in the market” to maintain its fragile economy.
The World Food Program said this week that it plans to buy, load and ship 30,000 tons of wheat from Ukraine on a UN chartered vessel. He did not say where the ship would go or when that voyage would take place.
In Lebanon, where Mercy Corps says the price of wheat flour has risen more than 200% since the start of the Russian war, people have stood in long and often tense queues outside bakeries for subsidized bread in recent days.
The green government has lit up a $150 million World Bank loan to import wheat, a temporary fix for six to nine months before it has to lift bread subsidies entirely.
While the situation is difficult for millions of Lebanese, nearly a million Syrian refugees in the country who have fled the civil war across the border face stigma and discrimination in an effort to buy bread.
A Syrian living in northern Lebanon said it usually takes him three to four visits to bakeries before he finds someone to sell his bread to, with the Lebanese given priority. He described queues of 100 people waiting and only a handful every half hour allowed to buy a small bundle of loaves.
“We receive all kinds of rude comments because we are Syrians, which we usually ignore, but sometimes it’s too much and we decide to go home empty-handed,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Elbatrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Anna from Nairobi, Kenya.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine