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World hunger at 'new high', UN warns, with enough grain to feed millions stuck in Ukraine

The secretary-general of the United Nations has warned that hunger levels around the world “are at a new high”.

Antonio Guterres was speaking at a meeting of world leaders called to discuss the escalating food security crisis.

He said the number of people facing severe food insecurity had doubled in just two years from 135 million before the coronavirus pandemic to 276 million today.

The number of people living in famine conditions has increased by more than 500% since 2016 and now sits at more than 500,000.

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“The complex security, economic and financial implications require goodwill on all sides for a package deal to be reached,” Mr Guterres said.

“I will not go into details because public statements could undermine the chances of success.

“There is still a long way to go,” he said.

More on Russia

Exports on hold

The situation has been made worse in recent months by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia produce almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley, and half of its sunflower oil.

Before the war, Ukraine was one of the biggest contributors to the UN World Food Programme, supplying enough grain to feed 400 million people.

Russia and its ally Belarus are the world’s second and third-largest producers of potash – vital for fertiliser.

But the war has put all of this at risk.

Exports from Russia are being disrupted as international companies leave and the logistics of shipping food become more difficult. Facing tough sanctions from Western countries, Russia may also need its food for its own people.

For Ukraine, Russian mines and naval vessels have blocked the Black Sea ports, putting exports on hold.

Other key developments:

Image:
This wheat warehouse is in the west of Ukraine – far from the heart of wheat country in the south. But the area has been asked to plant as many fields as possible. Pic: AP

Even before the war, food supply was bad for many countries

Developing countries are worst-affected – many were already seeing record-high food prices before the war due to problems such as drought and internal conflict.

Egypt, Bangladesh, Turkey, Yemen, and Lebanon are among those most vulnerable to a Ukrainian wheat shortage, for example.

And even for those countries who don’t rely on importing wheat from Russia or Ukraine, the shortages will continue to push prices up.

Mr Guterres said: “There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets, despite the war.”

He said he is in “intense contacts” with Russia and other key countries in the hope of an agreement to allow the export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports and to give Russian food and fertiliser unrestricted access to world markets.

‘If you have any heart at all please open these ports’

David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, was also at the meeting and said: “Failure to open the ports will be a declaration of war on global food security, resulting in famines and destabilisation of nations as well as mass migration by necessity.

“This is not just about Ukraine – this is about the poorest of the poor around the world who are on the brink of starvation as we speak.

“So I ask (Russian) President Putin, if you have any heart at all, to please open these ports… so that we can feed the poorest of the poor and avert famine, as we’ve done in the past, when nations in this room have stepped up together.”

Read more:
Billions of pounds of Ukrainian wheat cannot be exported amid food crisis in developing countries
War in Ukraine is worsening food insecurity with fears it could spark conflict in other countries
The data: Are we on the brink of a global food security crisis?

Call for countries with grain and fertiliser reserves to come forward urgently

The meeting was chaired by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the world is facing the “greatest global food security crisis of our time”.

“Governments and international organisations can also come together to compel the Russian Federation to create corridors so that food and other vital supplies can safely leave Ukraine by land or by sea.

“There are an estimated 22 million tonnes of grain sitting in silos in Ukraine right now, food that could immediately go toward helping those in need if it can simply get out of the country.”

He called on countries to give more to humanitarian organisations and for those with significant grain and fertiliser reserves to come forward quickly.

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