WFP: Russian Blockade is Affecting Food Supply in Vulnerable Nations

Shipment of food aid at Hodeidah, Yemen (file image courtesy WFP)

Published Mar 31, 2022 5:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UN World Food Programme is warning that the Russian blockade of Ukrainian agricultural exports could disrupt the food security of a large swath of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Food prices were already high at the beginning of 2022, but they have jumped even higher due to the invasion of Ukraine. The cost of flour and vegetable oil have risen sharply across the MENA region. The cost of cooking oil is up by 36 percent in Yemen and 39 percent in Syria. The price of wheat flour has risen by 47 percent in Lebanon, which gets almost all of its wheat from Ukraine. It is up by 15 percent in Libya and 14 percent in Palestine, according to WFP. These nations are heavily dependent on imported food staples, and the disruption has hit them first and hardest. 

Currency depreciation has also added to the challenge of buying food from abroad. In Lebanon - which is still struggling to rebuild from the damage wrought by a massive explosion in its main seaport - the cost of an average basket of food goods has risen by more than 350 percent on an annualized basis. 

The market disruption is having an immediate effect on WFP's own food operations. Recent commodity price hikes have added $70 million a month to the agency's operating costs. In Yemen and Syria, it has less than a third of the funding it needs to meet the need, and it has already been forced to reduce food aid rations for an undernourished populace. 

The Russian Navy could address this issue by lifting restrictions on navigation to and from Ukraine, according to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. 

“The Russian Navy is blocking access to Ukraine’s ports, essentially cutting off exports of grain. They are reportedly preventing approximately 94 ships carrying food for the world market from reaching the Mediterranean,” Sherman said at a UN Security Council briefing on Tuesday. 

A Russian pledge to set up a security corridor has reportedly had few takers. In addition to the risk of Russian attacks on merchant shipping in the corridor, drifting sea mines in the Black Sea pose an additional hazard which may be difficult to mitigate.