ISSN 2330-717X

How Smart’ Sanctions On Russia Can Stave Off Starvation – OpEd

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As of the end of June, more than 10,000 people had died as a result of the war in Ukraine, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), though the true figure is likely significantly higher. Other sources put the Russian military death toll alone at more than 35,000. The difficulty of garnering reliable information from the war is only exacerbated by Russian government media repression.

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Whatever the true figure, one thing is clear: given the importance of Ukraine and Russia to global food supply, the war threatens lives thousands of miles away in the Middle East, Africa, and around the world. 

The war and food security

Ukraine and Russia account for between 25% and 30% of global wheat exports, 20% of the world’s corn trade, and close to 80% of sunflower oil production, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture. Disruptions to production and supply chains were always going to drive a huge spike in food and fuel prices, given Russia’s central position in global energy markets. 

As of June 2022, the Food Consumer Price Index maintained by the World Bank was up 15% over the previous two months and more than 80% higher than two years ago. The Bank expects food prices to rise by roughly 20% this year. 

The knock-on effects of the war have exacerbated food price pressure already heightened by COVID-19, climate issues, and other conflicts. By February 2021, global food prices were at their highest since July 2014 and by June, global food prices had jumped by the most significant increase in a decade. Food isn’t just getting more expensive, its getting more expensive quicker as well.

The impact on Africa and the Middle East

Few places have felt such price pressures more acutely than African and Middle Eastern nations. For instance, Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat to countries in the region, including Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon, accounting for 80% of the latter’s wheat imports. Eritrea relies on Ukraine and Russia for all of its wheat imports. The countries which most rely on Ukraine for their wheat happen already be plagued by food insecurity. Across Africa, almost half of wheat imports typically come from Ukraine or Russia.

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Food price inflation in Sub-Saharan Africa was up 11% in the first quarter of 2022, while the price of wheat across Africa has increased by over 45% since Russia’s invasion and the price of fertilisers by 300%. Both hard wheat and soft wheat have had 252 and 239 consecutive days, respectively, of high volatility, according to a Food Security Portal facilitated by the International Food Policy Research Institute; prices for both have risen by more than 135% since the second quarter of 2021. 

Africa now faces a shortage of at least 30 million metric tonnes of foods – particularly wheat, maize, and soybeans – from Ukraine and Russia, particularly problematic on a continent home to several of the world’s hungriest countries. Even before a UN forecast that conflict and climate change will put 49 million people in 46 African countries at risk of famine, 750,000 were already experiencing ‘catastrophic’ famine.

In response, in May, the African Development Bank (ADB) approved a $1.5bn plan, the African Emergency Food Production Facility, in an effort to alleviate an impending food crisis. The plan will provide 20 million African farmers with certified seeds and increase access to agricultural fertilisers, which are the two essential ingredients for growing crops, with the aim of facilitating the production of 38 million tonnes of food. This is in addition to the ADB’s ‘Feed Africa Response to COVID-19’, a 12-month plan also aimed at bolstering food production and supplies.

Given the combination of war-related ruptures and lingering disruptions from the pandemic, it is little wonder that the World Food Programme has warned that parts of Africa face an ‘unprecedented food emergency’. While the war in Ukraine is likely to rumble on for the foreseeable future, said emergency is not an inevitability. The EU and the West, while ensuring that Moscow pays the price for its abominable adventure, can implement ‘smart’ sanctions to stave off starvation in the world’s most food insecure regions.

‘Smart’ sanctions

The essence of ‘smart’ sanctions was encapsulated by Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s executive vice-president, when, in April, he acknowledged the need for sanctions to be imposed “in a way that maximises pressure on Russia while minimising collateral damage on ourselves” amid fears of the knock-on effects of import restrictions on Russian oil and gas. 

The EU, and the West writ large, though, should look beyond collateral damage on themselves and on their sanctions on Russian entities and certain key citizens in the wheat industry, transport industry (only related to food carriage), and fertilizer industry which have had unintended consequences in terms of food security. 

The EU states that its import and export restrictions exclude food and agricultural products, among other things. Yet it has been acknowledged by senior officials that, amid a complex framework of sanctions, that it is highly likely that agricultural produce and food have been affected. 

Make no mistake, the Russian government and its facilitators, including companies owned by those close to the barbarous Kremlin, deserve the full spectrum of punishment the West, and the broader international community, can muster. It is important not to forget, though, that the arena of division extends far beyond the fields and cities of Ukraine. 

Africa has proven to be an increasingly important battleground for influence between the West and Russia, and the latter has proven successful in spreading its propaganda across the continent. Thus, the continent is likely to be particularly susceptible to Russian messaging that it is Western sanctions on Moscow that are contributing to their ails.

The EU, thankfully, has begun to show the requisite pragmatism that the implementation of ‘smart’ sanctions calls for. It has demonstrated a willingness to loosen sanctions to allow trade in Russian food and agricultural related products, voicing its commitment ‘to avoiding all measures which might lead to food insecurity around the globe’. A recent Bloomberg report for example, indicated the anticipated removal of one of the world’s largest fertiliser producers, EuroChem, and its beneficial owners, from the sanctions list. 

Brussels recently announced that Sberbank, a Russian majority state-owned bank, will be among 48 new additions to its sanctions list on Russian organisations and individuals. Interestingly, the bank’s inclusion would freeze Western assets and block all transactions with the company except financial operations for trade in food and fertiliser. This is the epitome of sanctions that are smart.

The EU and the West should go further – not in the name of concessions to the Kremlin, but rather in the interest of averting a further knock-on crisis from the war. In addition to providing carve-outs for future sanctions, Brussels should retrospectively analyse those already in place, and retroactively implement similar exemptions. This, alongside the removal of entities not associated with the Kremlin and whose ability to operate has been hindered by blanket sanctions, would make a world of a difference when addressing the impossible rise in food costs and growing global food insecurity. 

Food, fertiliser and agriculture trading related entities and owners that fit this profile, should be wholly exempt from sanctions. Regrettably, this may appear to some as a capitulation, but the West has several other avenues through which it can squeeze Moscow. What it doesn’t have is other feasible options for making up for agricultural output lost to either the war or sanctions. ‘Smart’ sanctions are the West’s best bet for averting the loss of thousands more lives, not to missiles and shrapnel, but to malnutrition and starvation. 


Faith Odhiambo resides in her native Kenya and is a professional in the food and beverage industry. She works as a freelance journalist and is building a new community of citizens concerned about the future of food security on the African continent. Follow her work on Twitter here.

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