The Black Sea Grain Initiative Is Not About Hungry Kids in Africa (2024)

On July 17, the Russian government announced that it was pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that ensured Ukrainian grain could still be exported despite the conflict. Russia has also been carrying out deadly attacks on storage facilities in the Black Sea region. The grain deal, agreed to a year ago, allowed the flow of Ukraine’s maize, wheat, and a host of other staples to global markets.

On July 17, the Russian government announced that it was pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that ensured Ukrainian grain could still be exported despite the conflict. Russia has also been carrying out deadly attacks on storage facilities in the Black Sea region. The grain deal, agreed to a year ago, allowed the flow of Ukraine’s maize, wheat, and a host of other staples to global markets.

In 2022, before the deal was brokered, media coverage and political conversations centered on how African countries depended heavily on grain imports from Ukraine, a country known as the breadbasket of Europe.

On Aug. 30, 2022, when the first shipment of exported wheat since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached Ethiopia after spending weeks in limbo, the U.S. Embassy in Italy announced the arrival with a press release featuring a picture of a mother feeding her “severely malnourished child at a camp for internally displaced people.”

More recently, on the day Russia pulled out of the deal, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield restated the cruelty of Russia’s action by emphasizing the importance of Ukraine’s grain to African countries. “The child in the Horn of Africa who is severely malnourished, the mother who will stop producing breast milk for her baby because she doesn’t have enough to eat herself, these are the consequences of Russia’s actions,” she said in a statement. Putin, on the other hand promised free grain to six African countries in the Russia-Africa summit held last week, stating that he knew how important grain imports are.

The United States, in a bid to score political points and sensationalize the news, has focused on the misguided, decades-old “starving African kids” narrative. It has ignored who the biggest beneficiaries of the deal are as well as the nuances of food security in African countries.

Africa has never really been the target consumer for Ukrainian grain. According to data by the United Nations, all the grain sent to Africa since the Black Sea deal was implemented accounts for less than 13 percent of total exports, and only a fraction of this went as food aid to so-called troubled countries.

Through the grain initiative, Kenya has imported 438,000 metric tons of corn and wheat, while the country itself produced 2.9 million metric tons of corn and 275,000 metric tons of wheat during the 2022-23 season. Ethiopia, which produced 7 million metric tons during the 2021-22 season and is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa, has received 282,000 metric tons of grain under the deal. Egypt, the largest African importer under the initiative, produced 9.8 million metric tons of wheat during the 2022-23 season, compared with the 1.6 million metric tons it has imported under the initiative.

Egypt and Kenya, both of which do not exactly fit into the picture of poor aid-consuming African countries, have been the biggest African importers under the initiative and account for roughly half of the 4 million metric tons sent to Africa. In comparison, Ethiopia has gotten just over 282,000 metric tons. Countries such as Djibouti and Sudan, which receive this grain chiefly as food aid, account for even less.

For the United States, demonizing Moscow over the grain initiative is a chance to chip away at the continent’s support for Russia.

Climate change has exacerbated weather conditions in the Horn of Africa. Since 2020, the region has faced severe drought, which has left an estimated 23 million people at risk of severe hunger. In March, when long-awaited rain finally fell in the region, it was accompanied by violent flash floods that destroyed houses, farmlands, and displaced even more people. Currently, Ethiopia is the largest recipient of U.S. food aid.

However, since June, both the United States and the U.N. have stopped sending food aid to Ethiopia, citing concerns that the aid was being stolen and diverted to be sold. The decision to stop shipping aid to the country has arguably exacerbated hunger-related death in the region. Ordinary people are paying for the misdeeds of officials.

Exaggerating the grain initiative’s relevance holds a much-needed point for the United States in Africa, especially as it continues to lose its grip to China’s influence and Russia’s disinformation. Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has spearheaded multiple disinformation campaigns in Africa to condemn the West and whitewash Russia’s intentions and relationship with the continent. For the United States, demonizing Moscow over the grain initiative is a chance to chip away at the continent’s support for Russia.

“Food prices and the system generally [were] already under a lot of strain due to the pandemic,” said Michiel de Haas, an assistant professor of economic and environmental history at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and a co-author of the forthcoming book Pathways to African Food Security.

Most of the imported grain to African countries is used to produce flours and processed food for mostly the middle and upper classes. During the pandemic, food inflation on the continent rose alarmingly despite shrinking means of income for many. In the following years, countries such as Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria stepped up grain importation from the Black Sea area. Food aid programs from the World Food Program and other organizations also increased to address increased hunger and poverty.

The fallout from the cancellation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is mostly the same in Africa as in the wider world: The exit of a major food producer such as Ukraine would be terrible for food security globally and not only for kids in the Horn of Africa.

It will cause a global spike in staple food prices that will create discomfort for many people, but it will be much more devastating for residents of countries with lower purchasing power. Just before the grain initiative was brokered, wheat across the world sold for prices dangerously near those during the 2008 economic crisis. “In Africa, food prices increased,” Haas said, “but they were not very high.” According to Haas, food prices in Africa were mainly driven by issues already undermining the continent’s food security.

Along with severe weather conditions in the Horn of Africa and other parts of the continent, farmer-herder conflicts exacerbate food insecurity in many West African countries. Across the entire continent, bad and poorly implemented policies also have a history of worsening food inflation and reducing availability.

Even so, most of the continent has also built resilience to these issues. A large part of the population practices some form of subsistence agriculture. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 70 percent of Africans have livelihoods based in agriculture. “This would also be a great opportunity for African countries to step up local production, which has a lot of potential,” Haas said.

Across the continent, many countries are looking to reach food sufficiency—some even by restricting food imports—and have recorded complicated results but also promising ones. Sudan, in 2020, recorded its highest wheat production figures, over a million metric tons. In 2022, Ethiopia also recorded peak figures. Most of these figures have been achieved mostly with support from local and regional bodies; international support often comes as aid instead of support toward development or self-sustenance. This also provides a leeway to influence the continent’s support and policies.

Nigeria, where official figures put the poverty rate at over 60 percent, has been dealing with record food inflation figures since 2020. When grain exports stopped in 2022, the prices of bread and other flour goods increased by around 20 percent, but this is a considerably small cog in a larger wheel of Nigeria’s food insecurity. The country has been dealing with a weakening currency, extreme weather conditions, extremist violence, economic recessions, and bad policy implementation, which have all contributed to skyrocketing food prices and lower purchasing power. Nigeria’s grain imports from Ukraine, which had increased following the pandemic, plummeted almost to zero.

Grain imports often play a negligible role when it comes to food insecurity in most African countries. A number of factors deserve higher priority.

Grain imports often play a negligible role when it comes to food insecurity in most African countries. A number of factors deserve higher priority. The continent’s trade pattern is heavily dendritic: Raw materials travel from warehouses to ports and then to mostly to countries on other continents. Africa has the world’s lowest intraregional trade, meaning that food production surpluses, when they do occur, go overseas and not to other African countries. The continent is also the most affected by climate change, which has made agriculture much more difficult. Food aid and importation have been a Band-Aid for much deeper problems.

Framing the blockade as a fight for Africa’s hungry disregards the true beneficiaries of the initiative. Countries such as China, Spain, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands have also heavily benefited from the initiative, accounting for 21.2 million metric tons (65 percent) of the total 32.9 million metric tons exported. The free flow of Ukrainian grain also provides a means to provide indirect support to Ukraine because of purchases by funders of food aid programs like the United States.

Global food security, not just Africa’s, is in danger.

It is as important to the kid in Africa as it is to one in Syria or Afghanistan. Prioritizing the narrative that Africa and other developing states have been beneficiaries of the grain deal obscures the very obvious list of developed countries that are beneficiaries.

When push comes to shove, the grain demand of developed countries is what will drive the market, and developing states will have to deal with increasing prices despite their much lower demand. The current conversation tends to disregard these patterns and absolves the United States, the U.N., and other Western actors of putting forward a tired narrative of Africa as the land of hunger to score political points at a moment when their diplomatic influence on the continent is at a low point.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative Is Not About Hungry Kids in Africa (2024)


How does the Black Sea Grain Initiative work? ›

The initiative, one of the few diplomatic achievements since the war started, allows for commercial food and fertiliser (including ammonia) exports from three key Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea – Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdennyi (formerly known as Yuzhny).

Why is the Black Sea Grain Initiative important? ›

The Black Sea Grain Initiative helps people in need across the globe by directly delivering desperately-needed grains to lower-income countries and bringing down food prices.

Why is Ukrainian grain important? ›

What makes Ukraine such an important part of the global food supply chain? Ukraine has been called the breadbasket of Europe and is a major supplier of wheat, barley, sunflower products, and corn to Europe as well as to developing countries such as in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and China.

What is the grain corridor? ›

The corridor ran to and from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi. It also allowed the Russian navy to check ships for weapons at the Bosphorus Strait, at the entrance to the Black Sea.

What percentage of grain comes from Ukraine? ›

Nonetheless, accounting for 10 percent of the global wheat market, 15 percent of the corn market and more than 50 percent of the sunflower oil market, Ukraine's repercussions on global prices are significant.

When did Black Sea Grain Initiative start? ›

The so-called “Black Sea grain deal” was brokered by the UN and Turkey in July 2022 and includes two separate agreements: the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) between Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the UN; and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Russia and the UN.

Which countries are involved in the Black Sea Grain Initiative? ›

The Joint Coordination Centre is hosted in Istanbul and includes representatives from Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the United Nations. The UN acts also as the Secretariat for the Centre. Ukrainian vessels guide cargo ships into international waters of the Black Sea, avoiding mined areas.

Which countries buy grain from Ukraine? ›

JCC data shows that 57% of the grain from Ukraine went to developing nations, with the top destination being China, which received nearly a quarter of the food.

What is the role of the Black Sea in global food security? ›

As per data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Black Sea Grain Initiative successfully enabled safe shipment of more than 32 million tonnes of food commodities from Ukrainian Black Sea ports to 45 countries across three continents, thereby keeping global food prices in check and combating food ...

Who produces the most grain in the world? ›

China is the world's largest grain producer, yet has grown more dependent on food imports in recent decades. Much of India's output is produced by subsistence farmers and consumed locally.

Is Ukraine the biggest supplier of grain? ›

Ukraine is the world's seventh-largest wheat producer and is forecasted to be the fifth-largest exporter for the 2021/22 marketing year. In 2021, Ukrainian wheat exports were valued at $5.1 billion, with Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as the primary destinations.

Does Ukraine supply the world with grain? ›

Ukraine is also a huge exporter of corn, and Russia of fertilizer — other critical parts of the food chain. Interrupted shipments from Ukraine, dubbed the “breadbasket of the world,” exacerbated a global food crisis and sent prices for grain soaring worldwide.

What is Ukraine's biggest export? ›

Ukraine produces 18% of the world's sunflower seed, safflower or cottonseed oil exports; 13% of corn production; 12% of global barley exports; and 8% of wheat and meslin. In absolute figures, corn is the largest Ukrainian export market and brings in a massive $4.77 billion every year.

Does the US have grain storage? ›

On-farm storage has reached 15.58 billion bushels, with Iowa leading all states at 2.05 billion bushels. On-farm grain storage capacity includes all bins, cribs, sheds, and other structures located on farms that are normally used to store whole grains, oilseeds or pulse crops.

How many grain ships have left Ukraine? ›

Over 1 000 ships full of grain and other foodstuffs left Ukraine from three Ukrainian ports (Chornomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi) during the implementation of the initiative. In July 2023, Russia announced its decision to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

What is the Black Sea Grain Initiative route? ›

On July 22, 2022, the UN and Turkey got Russia to agree to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, under which cargo ships would be allowed to travel from and to three Ukrainian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi (Yuzhny), after inspection that they weren't carrying arms.

How does grain marketing work? ›

Grain marketing and trading happen extensively through futures contracts. These legal documents set an amount of grain and price per bushel for delivery at a future date. Hedge traders use these contracts to mitigate their risk in the market.

Who are the parties to the Black Sea Grain Initiative? ›

Termination of the "Black Sea Grain Initiative", a four-party agreement (UN, Türkiye, Ukraine and Russia) on grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea (Statement by Foreign Minister HAYASHI Yoshimasa)

What is the black sea grain route? ›

The deal between the United Nations, Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey allows exports from Ukraine through a safe humanitarian corridor from the ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa, and Pivdenniy to the rest of the world.

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