Exports of Ukrainian corn and wheat that supplied Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the European Union all but halted a year ago after Russia invaded the country, closing down Black Sea ports. 

Now, there is a scheme to lessen the impact if those ports are closed again, European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski tells Agri-Pulse.

Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi has proposed that Western allies build dedicated rail lines to allow Ukrainian farmers to ship corn and wheat directly to ports in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, where ships can take the grain all over the globe, according to Wojciechowski, who said he discussed potential U.S. involvement during meetings last week with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“We should consider this proposal,” Wojciechowski said in an interview at the offices of the EU delegation to the U.S. in Washington. “Maybe the United States will be interested in participating in this potential investment.”

The Russian invasion a little more than a year ago almost entirely shut down Ukraine’s grain exports. Russia’s Navy made it impossible for vessels to continue to haul about 5 million metric tons of grain per month out of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, cutting off supplies to the world and adding to the hunger woes of some of the most vulnerable regions, including the Horn of Africa. 

Ukraine began the slow process of shipping grain via rail to the west, but the system is far from ideal because the commodities need to be removed from Ukrainian trains and reloaded onto European lines that have a narrower track gauge. Often the grain must be put in temporary storage during the switch, and much of it ends up being sold in Poland or other nearby markets.

The European Union is streamlining the current rail process under its Solidarity Lanes effort, but Wojciechowski admits that's only a temporary solution and not nearly enough.

Ukrainian grain exporters were limping to the west on a makeshift rail passage in the early months of the war. Trade got a boost when farmers began shipping their wheat, corn and other commodities to the Danube River in the south. 

But what really opened Ukraine back up to a world in desperate need of its grain was the United Nations-led Black Sea Grain Initiative. The UN, together with Turkey, negotiated a deal between Russia and Ukraine that opened up grain exports from three ports – Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.

Soon after the agreement was signed on July 22, 2022, in Istanbul, ships were loading tens of thousands of tons of corn and wheat at the Odesa ports and hauling the grain through the Bosporus strait before heading to destinations around the globe. 

Most of the exports have gone to wealthier nations such as Spain and China, but countries like the U.S., Japan, France, Norway and organizations like the World Food Program were also quick to fund donations of Ukrainian wheat to the needy in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere.

About 11 million tons of grain and other farm goods were shipped out of the three Odesa ports in the first 120 days of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. That included 325,300 tons of wheat shipped by the World Food Program to desperate regions, according to UN data.

Janusz_Wojciechowski_EU.jpgEuropean Union Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization tracked global food price averages as they began to fall.

The problem is, Russia can shut down the initiative at any time, which would force Ukraine to rely again on the makeshift railway routes to the west.

“We don’t know what Russia will do in the future,” Wojciechowski said. “We should be ready to have alternatives for Ukrainian exports. We need an alternative for the Black Sea (Grain Initiative) because it is always at risk. We need a long-term solution. We have the Solidarity Lanes, but they are temporary."

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While new European-gauge rail lines from Ukraine all the way to ports in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia won’t be able to handle the volume that Ukraine’s Black Sea ports can, they would weaken Russia’s ability to use food as a weapon – a charge made by Wojciechowski and President Joe Biden.

Biden, after a clandestine trip to Kyiv in February, traveled to Poland and delivered a speech that made clear his anger over Moscow’s grip on Ukraine’s ability to export.

“Putin tried to starve the world, blocking the ports in the Black Sea to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain, exacerbating the global food crisis that hit developing nations in Africa especially hard,” Biden said.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative comes up for renewal every 120 days. Russia threatened the first renewal date last fall by inexplicably suspending its participation in the agreement and then re-entering it. 

The next 120-day renewal date is March 18.

It’s unclear if the U.S. will agree to help finance the new rail lines from Ukraine to Baltic ports in an effort to create a stronger alternative for Ukrainian exports, but Vilsack stressed the U.S. stands firm in its commitment to support Ukraine’s ability to get its grain to those who need it.

The U.S. has a responsibility to act “if Russia takes steps that interfere with the ability of grain to get to markets,” Vilsack said in a joint press conference with Wojciechowski Friday. 

The U.S., Vilsack added, can continue to provide grain storage for Ukraine and “help invest in the infrastructure that would allow it to be moved over land … and to other ports where it could potentially be sent to Africa and the Middle East. We can use our resources in the U.S. to make sure that countries that have been relying on Ukraine grain are able to get sufficient food supplies so that they don’t have instability or hunger issues as a result.”

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