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The Weaponization of Food: Ukraine's Struggle for Survival and its Global Consequences
June 15, 2023

If you search on “Google” for a pizzeria in Kyiv, you have many choices, such as “Mimosa Brooklyn Pizza”, “Mamamia”, or “Vesuveo”.  If bombs or supersonic missiles do not scare you, more formal dining pleasures exist. “Feel like a star”, reads one of the ads for the “Matisse”, located on the 15th floor of the “Cityhotel” in the historic part of town - an eatery 52 meters up could be a tempting target for Russian missile attacks. Wladimir Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing-champion invites you to his rooftop restaurant on the 11th floor of his design hotel “11 Mirrors”; It is uncertain when and if waiters or bartenders  can serve meals or cocktails during seemingly peaceful hours,  in the  Asian “Koya”, drinks enriched with  tamarind paste from tropical Central Africa or lapsang souchong and yellow chrysanthemums from the mountain slopes of China are served, just to keep the nerves in balance. Dining out in Ukraine is a game of roulette, air raid sirens and incoming missiles, and ambulance stretchers don’t need to be ordered. War is part of the reality. The global travel organization “Trip Advisor “warns, “It is currently recommended to avoid all travel to Ukraine due to armed conflict and serious safety risks. “Most of the proposed 1426 eateries are closed, since cooks, bartenders, or the barkeepers between age 18 to 60 are not serving food but are in uniform and fighting for the survival of their nation and their own lives. Taxis are hard to find, because drivers are near the front as well, possibly driving tanks, electricity is cut off almost daily, and only restaurants equipped with generators can survive.  No one knows when and where attacks are staged, but if missiles are enroute, guests are forced to abandon their fish soup or Peking duck and   escape into basement shelters, united, with cooks, waiters, bartenders, and possibly the dining room pianist, in fear and frustration. Mind you, the restaurant employees are most likely university students, because they are exempted from frontline duty and just must brave the darkness, finding their way home with flashlights, often forced to hurry after work since curfew is imposed. They risk their lives for one hour or two of normality; UN representatives, more than 1400 are deployed in the war zone, diplomats and politicians reaching the   capital for meetings with the nation’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. ”Dining under the drones in Ukraine”, writes Johanna Mendelson Forman in “ Inkstick” (February 24, 2023) has become “a patriotic duty for those who can afford it. ”Dining out  helps the economy while also “creating a sense of community ”The stress of trying to survive when the wail of air raid sirens penetrates your daily routine; is” another reason people have turned for food to relieve  anxiety and reconnect with comfort foods.” For some citizens, writes Johanna Mendelson, “eating while the sirens wail is considered a form of defiance. «Some restaurants, if they found food to cook and water to boil will open for lunch at 11 in the morning or serve dinner at 16 hrs., at times reservations are canceled by incoming rockets, which often aim at the infrastructure, the electricity grid.


Imminent and extreme painful

In the last days of November, more than  10 million citizens were without electricity, the result of the destruction of energy infrastructure in  Kyiv, Odesa, Vinnytsia, and Sumy (Al Jazeera, November 17, 2022)  Moscow has visibly decided upon the strangulation of the enemy – a slow death of a nation of 43 million, a large, growing, number of displaced Ukrainians,  of whom tens of thousands have been deported to Russia. Eight million escaped into neighboring nations, confirmed the International  Organization for Migration (IOM) in its report “Ukraine crisis 2022-2023-1 year of response” (February, 24, 2023). Antonio Vitorino, Director General of IOM writes in early 2023, 13.4 million Ukrainians were displaced in Ukraine and abroad, a year of war has seriously affected access to crucial services throughout Ukraine and disproportionately impacted the lives of those displaced.  Most escaping to neighboring nations is women (96 percent) in their thirties; traveling with family members, including children and elderly people who freeze in basements, doctors operate by candlelight and without anesthetics, while time and time again vital civilian infrastructure-heating plants, power stations, hospitals-are destroyed. The needs are staggering and increasing. Another 5.4, possibly seven million Ukrainians, 16 percent of the population, researched the European  Union Agency for Asylum and the International Organization for Migration,  are displaced within the borders of their devastated country, a tragedy recorded in 28 October 2022 by these international organizations, supported by the OECD: “Forced displacement from and within Ukraine: Profiles, experiences, and aspirations of affected populations”. For internally displaced people, domestic logistic channels must be maintained to provide food and other essential services, including the area where many  people sought refuge from active fighting” (OECD, August 5, 2022). Hunger is forcing nurses and aid organizations to make inhuman decisions, facing the choice of depriving hungry children of food to save those starving. In this war food has been turned into weapons, not only forcing the citizens of Ukraine to suffer hunger, the pain of empty stomachs, the spirit captured by fatigue, malnutrition sliding towards starvation but also humans in Yemen, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Djibouti are affected by the war in Europe. For months the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a complete halt of maritime grain shipments from three Ukrainian harbors. More than 275 million people worldwide, reported Mark  Green, CEO  of the “Wilson Center”, a  research institute in Washington, DC ( June 2, 2022) “are on the brink of starvation- a new and tragic record”. 44 million people in 36 countries are at “the emergency phase of food insecurity-one step away from a declaration of famine.” Ukraine plays  “a key role in the global food market”, which in itself is  (CNN, November 1, 2022), another tragic consequence for famine-stricken  countries of the world .


In the shadow of death

According to the UN, Ukraine normally supplies the world with about 45 million tons of grain every year. It ranks among the top five global exporters of bailey, corn, and wheat. It’s also by far the biggest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for 46 % of the world’s export. “When Russia launched its invasion on February 24, it effectively imposed a blockade on ships leaving Ukraine’s ports. The impact of the war on global food markets was imminent and extreme painful” (CNN), especially since Kyiv is a major supplier of grain for the World Food Program. The Food and Agricultural Organisation, a UN body, said that as many as 47 million people could be pushed into “acute food insecurity” because of the war, thus Moscow turning grain and wheat into weapons and starving populations into the shadow of death. Russia’s invasion caused a significant increase in food prices, on global markets. Prior to the war the UN World Food Program bought half of its grain stock from Ukraine. By November of last year, five ships, carrying a total of 150 000 tons of wheat, have left Ukrainian ports en route to Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The EU, a major global producer and exporter of wheat is expected to deliver around 36 million tons of soft wheat. Since July 2022 alone, the EU has exported six million tons of wheat, mainly to Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria. A reduction in export capacity from Ukraine and Russia, noted the OECD last august, and rising energy and fertilizer prices are pushing up international food prices, thereby threatening global food security. Findings in the OECD brief “Ukraine: tackling the policy challenges” suggest that the full loss of Ukraine’s capacity to export, together with a 50 percent reduction in Russia’s wheat export could lead to a 34 percent increase in international wheat prices in the marketing year 2022/23. Indirect   losses to Ukraine’s agriculture due to production decrease, higher production costs, logistic disruption and lower prices for  export-oriented commodities  have been estimated  at 23.3 billion US dollars as of  June 2022, figures  the “Kyiv School of Economics” in its “Agricultural war damages review”.“ Ukrainian farmers  are showing high resilience to the disruption  caused by the war”, praised the “OECD”, and  are continuing to produce crops  and livestock products when the security of agricultural fields  allow.


The expected food crisis

As of May 2022, production prospects for 2022/23 winter crop were favorable but remained subject to uncertainty, including due to farmers ability to apply fertilizers and perform other maintenance tasks before the June 2022 harvest. Currently, confirms the NGO “Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group”(March, 16, 2022) ,there are 110053,6 square kilometer of arable lands located within  the risk farming zone in Ukraine, which is  30% of the arable land in the nation. In several regions the invaders mined fields, and allegedly, Russian forces plundered warehouses filled with grain and wheat, transporting their heist across the border into Russia. Enemy troops retreating from Ukrainian farm villages deliberately destroyed farm equipment, thus exacerbating the expected and provoked food crisis. Russia’s aggression is also likely to affect Ukraine’s ability to control pest and animal diseases, notably the African swine fever, significantly increasing the risk of disease proliferation within Ukraine, and in neighboring countries, Russia or Belarus come to mind.  The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, warned, that if food and fertilizers do not reach global markets now, “farmers will not have fertilizers at the right time and a prize they can afford as the planting season begins” endangering crops in all regions of the world in 2023 and 2024, with dramatic effect on food production and food prices worldwide.  The current crisis of affordability will turn into a crisis of availability.” (UN News, October 29, 2022).


Famine, destabilization, and mass migration around the world

Approximately 22 million tons of grain were stranded, writes Wilson Center CEO Mark Green when Russia invaded and blocked Ukraine’s harbors: “What isn’t receiving enough attention is what stranded Ukrainian grain means for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The price in Africa is up by 45 percent”. A BBC report noted that Egypt and Bangladesh each get about a quarter of their wheat from Ukraine. Moldova, already suffering from Russian occupation and the war’s fall out, gets over 90 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. In a Security Council debate, the World Food Program Executive director David Beasley stated “the failure to open those ports…will be a declaration of war on global food security. It will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world.” Five months after the invasion, on July 22, 2022, an agreement was brokered  by the United Nations and Turkey (Council of the European Union, November 7, 2022) to open a safe maritime humanitarian  corridor in the Black Sea. The agreement was limited to 120 days, with a possibility of extension in mid-November.  Since the signing of the” Black Sea Grain Initiative ”1080 ships loaded with grain, fertilizer   have left the Ukrainian ports Chornomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhny/ Pivdennyl.  Ukraines grain exports  of the 2022/2023 season stands at 43.6 million as of May 16, 2023 reported the “  Under the deal vessels coming to or leaving Ukrainian harbors are inspected and monitored by international teams made up of officials from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the UN. As part of the deal, the UN and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding that was meant to protect Russia’s export of fertilizers and other agricultural products from the impact of Western sanctions”. Russia claimed, according to CNN, their cargo was still being obstructed despite the decision by   the EU and US   to exempt these exports from their embargos, sanctions on financial institutions and bans on Russian linked vessels. Furthermore, Moscow argued, restrictions on payments, logistics and insurances amounted to a barrier for its own shipments. On  October 29 , 2022,  Moscow announced: “In connection with the actions of Ukrainian  armed forces, led by British specialists, directed, among other things, against Russian  ships that ensure  the functioning  of the humanitarian  corridor in question (which cannot be qualified otherwise  than as a terrorist attack) the Russian  side cannot  guarantee the safety  of civilian dry cargo  ships participating  in the  Black Sea Initiative, and suspends  its implementation  from today for an indefinite  period” (CBS News, October 29, 2022).


Grave concern over global food supply

 Navy and civilian vessels berthed or anchored in the Crimean city Sevastopol, port on the Ukrainian peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, had been attacked by 16 air and sea drones, and at least one Russian minesweeper reported “minor damages”. One of the drones, most of them repelled by Russian forces, claimed Moscow, could have been launched from a civilian ship carrying grain. Russia’s decision to pull out of the agreement, reported Ivana Kotlasova on CNN, has “sparked grave concerns over global food supply at a time when the world is already facing a growing hunger crisis”, leading desperate people into “potentially deadly consequences. «Among the blocked vessels was the “Ikaria Angel”, chartered by the World Food Program and loaded with 30000 metric tons of wheat destined for the Horn of Africa, which is suffering a major food crisis. «The renewed blockade imposed by Moscow is “prompting grave concerns about the growing global hunger crisis”, said Shashwat Saraf, the “East Africa Emergency” director at the “International Rescue Committee”, “especially in East Africa, where over 20 million people are experiencing hunger, or in places like Yemen, which relies on Russia and Ukraine for almost half its wheat import and where 19 million people need food assistance.” Despite Russia’s decision to pull out of the Black Sea Initiative, the UN, Turkey, and Ukraine decided to ignore Russia’s objections and continue the loading of 16 ships, of which 12 vessels were able to leave Ukrainian ports, including the “Ikaria Angel” as of October 31. Another two cargo vessels, reported CNN, departed a day later. Moscow, again, warned its partners that without Russia guaranteeing navigation safety in the Black Sea, the arrangement would become “much more risky, dangerous and unguaranteed.”


Draft a will, leave DNA samples!

Weeks later, m id-November, Ukraine’s president announced that Moscow had lifted its blockade, another agreement had been signed, extending the original document for another four months: “Russian blackmail did not lead to anything.”(AP, November 2, 2022) Apparently Kyiv reassured the UN (and Russia) it would not use humanitarian corridors to  attack Russian forces. The UN negotiated for Russian access to  global markets— a first shipment of Russian fertilizers donated by “Uralkem” and managed by the UN “World Food Program ”began to be  loaded in a Dutch harbor. Some harbors of Ukraine, like Mykolaiv, Mariupol, or Kherson, are still mined or surrounded by military activity, but ships are again loaded with food for the world, while Russian missiles continue to hit Ukrainian infrastructure, reducing electricity supplies to zero, and drive those cooks and waiters in Kyiv into unemployment and more misery.  Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees predicted that “the continuing destruction of civilian infrastructure is quickly making the humanitarian response look like a drop in the ocean of needs.” (AP, November 2, 2022) In May of this year the Ukrainian grain deal has been extended for another two months (Reuters, May 10,2023), for the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “good news for the world.”  Fine diners, carrying US passports, most probably should avoid restaurants in Kyiv. The State Department in Washington warned citizens, who decided to brave missiles and artillery, rockets and drones, to know the location of your closest shelter or protected space. In the event of mortar or rocket fire “follow the instructions from local authorities and seek shelter immediately. It may be too late, and the traveler may end as martyr”. Therefore, advised Washington (May 22, 2023), “Draft a will and designate appropriate assurance beneficiaries. Leave DNA samples with your medical provider in case it is necessary for your family to access them. Oh, yes, discuss with loved ones your funeral wishes”.


The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.