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Countries panic over grain supplies after Russia's withdrawal from deal


Moscow's decision to suspend its grain pact with Ukraine spiked global wheat prices. And many countries that rely on Ukraine's crops for food are panicking. Let's bring in Cary Fowler. He is the U.S. special envoy for global food security. As we just heard, the U.S. says Russia is weaponizing food. What's the first thing to look for to know how much damage this is doing?

CARY FOWLER: Well, yesterday, you could look at the price of grain, of wheat on the futures market. It went up about 6%. So that's a instant indication of what the international community thinks of this. But, of course, the grain that's coming out of Ukraine is destined for ports all over the world. Most of it, however, is going to low- and low-middle-income countries. So this is a grain that is desperately needed to feed hungry people around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Read a quote from a U.N. aide, Martin Griffiths. And his quote was, "each fraction of a percentage point pushes someone somewhere over the line to extreme poverty." Does that sound about right to you?

FOWLER: It's exactly right. The U.N. and World Food Programme have estimated that this conflict in Ukraine has pushed many millions of people into the poverty sector. And we're seeing extreme issues in many parts of the world. In the Horn of Africa, for instance, they're in their fourth year of extreme drought, probably headed into a fifth year, really staring famine in the face. And one of the ships, by the way, that left a port in Ukraine yesterday was a ship carrying 30,000 metric tons of wheat destined for Ethiopia. Just to give you some idea of what that amount really means, that would be the equivalent of about 100 million loaves of bread. So that's just one ship with 30,000 metric tons. Ukraine still has about 20 million metric tons in storage that really, really needs to get out.

MARTÍNEZ: And what regions of the world rely on Ukraine's grain more than maybe others?

FOWLER: Historically, Ukraine has exported mostly to the Middle East and to Africa. Those are two regions that have been severely affected by climate change, by COVID, by conflict and need this grain, need prices to be reasonable again and need the actual supplies of grain that are coming from Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: So short of getting at what Ukraine has in storage, are there any other sources of wheat, corn or maybe other grain products to help fill the void?

FOWLER: I think it's important to realize that most countries in the world are actually net food importers - 131 of 196 countries are net food importers. So the world is highly dependent on trade in foodstuffs, and grain in particular. That means that countries that are net food importers are dependent on countries such as Ukraine for much of their food supplies. Ukraine is a breadbasket of the world. It's a Top 5 exporter of wheat, corn, barley, sunflower.

And if you look at the situation right now, with grain being bottled up in the ports as a result of this suspension of the deal brokered by the U.N., you have a harvest going on in Ukraine. Mostly they're harvesting corn at the moment. And obviously, if you can't sell your corn, you can't sell your grain, can't get it out of the country, then that provides quite a disincentive for farmers to continue to do their really important work. So we urge all parties to abide by this agreement, continue the agreement in good faith and get the grain moving again to hungry people around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Turkey is recommitting to the deal. They promised to keep the grain moving. How long can they realistically keep it moving?

FOWLER: I certainly don't know the answer to that question. The shipments of grain really stopped when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 of this year. The deal that the U.N. brokered was a deal that was necessary to get the grain moving again. So that's what we're really aiming for. And we hope that Russia will come back in and - into the agreement and help us get the grain out.

MARTÍNEZ: And short of that, we're talking catastrophe, then?

FOWLER: We're already in a desperate situation. So yes, this is a question of food security around the world. And that's why we need to enforce this agreement.

MARTÍNEZ: That's U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security Cary Fowler. Thank you very much.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.